Is a 10-foot Mississippi River stage the new normal?

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 By Ted Pennekamp


The Mississippi River has been, on average, high for the past five years and counting. Last year, the wettest on record in the Upper Midwest, the river got down to near 9 feet at the McGregor gauge for about two weeks, then shot right back up to about 13 feet and stayed there for a long time.

In fact, the river was high throughout the winter of 2019-2020, and as spring approached, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was very concerned about the potential for huge flooding.

The huge flooding didn’t occur, but the river has gotten down to around 9 feet only for brief periods this summer due to continuing high amounts of rain in Minnesota and northern Wisconsin.

The river stage has been hovering around 10 to 11 feet for several weeks of late. On July 21, the river was at 10.34 feet. According to the National Weather Service, the river finally seems to be dropping. It was at 9.57 feet at 8:45 a.m., July 29. The lowest it dipped was to 9.49 feet July 27, according to the NWS’ river stage prediction chart for McGregor.

For most years in the 2000s and prior, the river at the McGregor gauge would get down to around 7.5 to 7 feet by mid-June and stay there all summer. It has been five years since the river has gotten that low.

“The summer rain events over the past five years seem to be more frequent and include more water,” said Patrick Moes, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Public Affairs. “This has created challenges as we try to maintain normal river elevations. In fact, the last time Pool 10 was able to remain at an elevation of around 7 feet was in 2015.”

Moes went on to say that last year the river received 13.9 trillion gallons of water from January through June. This year, the river received 11.5 trillion gallons for the same period.

 When asked if the river will ever get back down to around 7 feet, Moes said, “That might be a question best answered by Mother Nature. It’s hard to say at this point. It appears that we continue to remain in a wet cycle although it’s not as bad as last year.”

“We continue maintaining the Mississippi River for a minimum depth of at least 9 feet to ensure safe navigation,” Moes continued. “Once we achieve that minimum depth, we will adjust our dam gates to allow for excess water to travel downstream. Needless to say, this has become more of a norm as of late.”

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