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Flooding Leaves Behind River Barge Roadblock

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(credit: CBS) Bill Hudson
Bill Hudson has been with WCCO-TV since 1989. The native of Elk Rive...
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ALMA, Wis. (WCCO) — Commercial barge traffic should fully resume on the Mississippi River as early as next Tuesday.

Parts of the heavily-used upper Mississippi River were left impassible to barge and tug traffic after recent flooding left behind an unwanted surprise.

On the banks of the river at Alma, Wisconsin, tugs and barges sit motionless. It’s an unusual scene in what’s normally a busy summer season.

“Yes, the industry is starting to feel the impacts,” Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson George Stringham said.

That’s because some of the river’s main navigational channels are simply too shallow for the traffic to navigate safely, Stringham said.

In particular two points along the river near Alma and Winona have seen channels fill with silt and sand, carried downstream during recent flooding, “because the barges and towboats can’t get through.”

A number of tugs and barges have even gotten stuck, mired on the river bottom because main river channels have become too shallow. The heavily-loaded barges need a minimum nine-foot deep channel to navigate safely.

That’s why the Army Corps is doing emergency dredging, to pull out what floodwaters carried in.

Stringham explained that the fast moving floodwaters carry large amounts of silt and sand, which then deposits to the bottom when those floodwaters slow and recede.

“It basically just drops out of the water and fills in the channels,” he said.

More than 50,000 cubic yards of sand is being removed from the first two plugged channels in Alma and Winona. However, more emergency dredging will be needed once the river navigation resumes.

Tug captains and crews are getting anxious to get their deliveries to destinations. In the meantime, the work continues in this giant watery sandbox to clear clogged channels and get river commerce free flowing once again.

The Army Corps expects the Alma section of river will reopen Friday night. Crews will be working through the weekend and expect to clear the second closure near Winona by July 29.

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