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‘Be as safe as possible:’ Officials warn of debris with rising Mississippi River levels

UPDATE: The National Weather Service now says the Mississippi River at Burlington will crest at 20.3 feet on Sunday, July 7.


Officials are urging caution this holiday weekend as the Mississippi River swells with routed water from the north – and debris floats downriver with it.

At Burlington, the river reached 17.3 feet on Sunday night and is expected to reach 19.2 feet by Friday. The flood level is 15 feet there.

Shannon Prado, coordinator of the Des Moines County Emergency Management Agency, said the flood wall on the downtown riverfront and other mitigation projects over the last decade put Burlington in a good place to deal with flooding at this stage.

“In 2008, or if you go way back to 1993, they had severe river flooding in the Burlington metro area. They really don’t see those impacts anymore, due to this flood wall,” she said.

Prado said as of now, docks are being pulled out of the water at the riverfront and HESCO barriers are being put up. There’s already some flooding into parking lots but nothing reaching critical infrastructure.

But with rains expected locally and further north, it’s not clear yet how high the river will go.

“There is a lot of rainfall north of us which will impact that number. To what degree, we just don’t know yet,” she said.

Prado is getting daily updates from the National Weather Service and the Army Corps of Engineers. City and county officials will adjust accordingly as that forecast comes into view.

“Flooding is nothing new to our area. The people who are in place to deal with this have done it many times and they know what they’re doing,” Prado said.

Matt Wilson, Senior Service Hydrologist with the National Weather Service of the Quad Cities, said Burlington is on the south end of the region that will exceed major flood stage this week and over the holiday weekend.

“The big thing that’s causing this flooding is all the rain they’re getting up in Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Wilson said.

Last April, a similar thing happened, with spring rains and heavy snowmelt from more northern points along the river swelling the Mississippi in Iowa and Illinois.

Wilson said hydrologists call this “routed water.”

“By and large, it’s water at the headwaters of the Mississippi, in the Minnesota River, the Wisconsin River, the St. Croix River, all moving downstream at the same time, funneling into the Mississippi River and sending flood waves down toward us,” he said.

The flood level topped 19 feet in Burlington last year, but the flood wall kept things under control.

Wilson said a serious safety concern with this year's flood is the amount of stuff that will be flowing downstream.

“If we’re at major flood stage from Camanche down to Burlington, the river has had many opportunities to reach out and pick up all kinds of debris from the riverbanks,” he said. “Dead trees, old campers. You’d be surprised what has been found deposited after floods from upstream to downstream.”

Wilson said he definitely wouldn’t recommend spending the Fourth of July on the Mississippi this year.

Prado is also urging caution about being out on the river.

“You need to be as safe as possible. There’s just going to be so much debris floating down the river and we would hate to see anyone get hurt out there, especially on this holiday weekend. So please be careful, please be safe. Be weather-aware. Pay attention,” she said.

Prado said it’s not just this weekend that people need to worry about debris -- but for weeks ahead.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.