What the coming flood might look like in St. Paul

The predictions sound dire for downtown St. Paul as the water from around the state pours into the Minnesota River and other tributaries before it dumps its stash into the Mississippi and makes its way to the cities.

St. Paul has declared an emergency, sounding more concerned than in recent years.

Shepard Road will probably close this weekend; it usually gets waterlogged even with a comparatively marginal rise in the river as the city puts sandbags on Sibley and Jackson streets to keep the water below Kellogg Boulevard.

But officials sound more concerned this time around.

“It’s really the public infrastructure in Lowertown that’s the greatest concern — the parks and some of the government facilities,” St. Paul Emergency Management director Rich Schute tells the Pioneer Press.

The city’s downtown airport will face its biggest test since a flood wall was built around it years ago.

How bad could it be really?

The National Weather Service’s terminology can make things sound more dire than they are. “Flood stage,” for example, is hardly noticeable to the masses. Even with “major flood stage” (17 feet in St. Paul), life goes on relatively unscathed.

Downstream, the water threatens the river bank in Newport and the boat ramp at South St. Paul, but otherwise it’s hardly noticeable.

Just enough water for a TV reporter to stand in a puddle.

The weather service’s description of flooding doesn’t help in the event there’s a real flood and officials need people to take it seriously.

And from the sound of things, this is the year to take it seriously. There’s a 50-50 chance the flood stage in St. Paul could reach 22 feet, according to the Pioneer Press.

That’s higher than any of the pictures in the collection I’ve been building over the last eight years to show the effects of the river at various flood stages.

Twenty-two feet would be 3 feet higher than the last time the river got serious on March 23, 2011, when it hit 19 feet on its way to a 20-foot crest.

It looked like this on Shephard Road.

And downstream at the intersection of the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, there wasn’t much to write home about. The usual low-lying areas were underwater, of course, but there wasn’t a big threat beyond that.

It was concerning then, but let’s just say it wasn’t close to what the people of Nebraska — and now Iowa — have been going through on the Missouri River this week.

By comparison, the river is only at 8.3 feet, and the furthest out the National Weather Service predicts is a week from today, when it is expected to reach 17.3 feet.

When you’re waiting for water to arrive from the rest of the state, floods are a slow-motion affair.

Raspberry Island
18.5 ft


15.4 ft


13.5 ft


11.3 ft


9.2 ft


Wabasha St. Bridge
18.5 ft


15.4 ft


13.5 ft


11.3 ft


9.2 ft



If you’d like to contribute to the ongoing collection, go out Thursday and take some pictures of a river near you, note the measurement listed at the National Weather Service’s hydrology site here and send them to me at bcollins@mpr.org.

  • Barton

    quite a bit downstream, my family in Hannibal MO are already concerned about what is to come. The flood gates are up on the Mississippi River, but already the water is rising against the gates and seeping through – and the melt from up here hasn’t even arrived down there.

    Friends along the Platte River in NE keep posting photos of the daily rise in the river level at their house: they wake up every morning to higher water.

    It is going to be a bad year…..

    • That’s pretty much THE story. Downstream is already underwater and we’re going to add all of ours in about two weeks and all hell is going to break loose down there.

  • MrE85

    The images out of Arkansas are pretty amazing. I’m thankful that my neighborhood and my workplace are not at risk to floods.

    • jon

      They told me in song in sunday school that the wise man built his house upon the rock…

      But as some one who bought a house on well drained sandy soil, I suspect that I was lied to… impermeable soil (or rock) that doesn’t drain is a foolish place to build a house, and a wise man would have known that… but alas, this supposed wiseman had more marketing hype than wisdom.

      • MrE85

        I had no idea what type of soil our property had when I bought it. By sheer dumb luck, I made the right call.

  • Zachary Mott

    We hit 20′ in June of 2014, and if memory serves, neither Rasperry nor Harriet Islands were islands anymore at that point.

    Check out the list of historic crests on the NWS’ hydrograph page: https://water.weather.gov/ahps2/hydrograph.php?gage=stpm5&wfo=mpx

  • kevins

    I’m about 6 miles east of the Red River of the North…it flows North for gosh sakes!!
    Always an adventure this time of year.

    Be well all!

  • KTFoley

    The building on Raspberry Island (visible from Kellogg Ave.) is a boathouse. High water markers are painted on an inside wall with the year of each flood.

    The call for help has already gone out to move the entire first floor — gear, dock sections, 62-foot rowing shells — to higher ground.

    • KTFoley

      Looks like MPR sent someone down to the boathouse who recorded an interview with Jacque. Yay!

  • AL287

    I remember the flood of 1993. We had just moved to southeast Minnesota.

    That summer we were camping in southern Iowa and almost had to get back home via Kansas and western Nebraska.

    They closed the Interstate in Des Moines about two hours after we drove through due to flooding from the Raccoon River.

    All the small streams in northeast Iowa were in flood that summer.

    • Jack

      I was temping at Norwest Mortgage that year. They had moved a bunch of work from Minneapolis to Des Moines just before the flooding started. It came back freeze dried. I refused to touch it.

      My colleagues watched video of folks canoeing through the office.

      • AL287

        My son pumped about 40,000 gallons of melt water out of his and his neighbor’s backyards in La Crescent.

        The front of his yard is luckily at a higher elevation than the alley or his basement would have flooded.

        His mother-in-law said the potholes are godawful. No street was left unscathed.

        Floods are the worst. My family went through the August 2016 flood in Southeast Louisiana when 32 inches of rain fell in 48 hours. If the water gets above 5 or 6 feet you literally have to demolish the house and start over.

  • Stacy N

    This seems like a testament to the city and planning in general. The Mississippi floods and the city grew up around the river and accommodated for the flooding. Also, the topography of the area helps (not a flat, endless flood plain like around the Red River).

    • So true. Bluffs make great dikes.

    • Frank

      Simulate a flood in the Red River Valley: pour a glass of water on your dining room table

  • Jack Ungerleider

    There have been a few recent floods where the Science Museum has had a “Flood Cam” setup. (Here is a time lapse from 2010: https://vimeo.com/11630673 )

    I don’t know if the current construction project will get in the way of them doing it this year or not. Hopefully not, it makes for a great reminder of what happened and what can happen.

    • Jack Ungerleider

      Here’s the 2011 time lapse. It snowed twice during the period and melted right away.

      • The cold nights, warm days have been just perfect for the last week… a LOT of water was sent downstream before a LOT of water replaces it upstream. You couldn’t have asked for a better break. I know the nights are getting warmer now but even then it seems like enough to slow things to the not-that-big-of-a-disaster situation. We’ll see, of course.

        All bets are off south of here, though.

        • Jack Ungerleider

          I know that’s what the weather/flood forecasters are saying but rivers like fires tend to live by their own rules and I’m not sure I trust things this year. I always judge the impact of a flood by when the steps by the Harriet Island pavilion disappear and how long it takes for them to reappear.

  • tree207

    How .much of the buffering wetlands that existed before have since been drained and built upon as land premium for development? We have channelized our waterways into fast running drain sewers with far lesd ability to recharge our aguifers.