Rising water

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The Mississippi is still rising in Saint Paul, generating a wave of “Flood Tourism.” People come down to look at the yawning river that now stretches into what was once solid ground. It’s about as exciting as waking up in the morning, which is really all that the Mississippi is doing for the year. Spring has returned to Saint Paul. It becomes important, however, when you see how close we live to this wild and untamable creature that wakes up in a similar mood to any of us.

This year, the Mississippi will crest just below the mythical 100-year floodplain. This is a line that was drawn back in the 1920s when the Army Corps of Engineers was attempting to get a real handle on floods and control the Mississippi once and for all. It was an age of great projects and science, a time when humans turned their learning towards getting a firm hand of control on their environment. It was a time when we were really kidding ourselves bad.

The lines that were drawn may have had some meaning at the time, but the life of the Mississippi has changed along with the life along it. There are many reasons why these “official” lines don’t mean much anymore, but we tend to still use them. Here is a practical guide to floods in Saint Paul, generally at Chestnut Street, based on feet above sea level, the data you can see for yourself in google earth or any other mapping program:

696.2 “Flood Stage”
700.0 Roughly where Holman Field floods (before floodwall)
701.0 Pike Island and the Hopnegs are flooded out
701.6 Sibley/Jackson at Shepard/Warner starts to flood
701.8 Expected 2010 Crest
702.0 100-Year Flood line at Chestnut St
703.0 Roughly where Lowertown starts to flood
703.5 Roughly where Harriet Island is under
704.2 The 1993 High-Water Mark at Chestnut St
704.8 Raspberry Island disappears
704.0 Roughly where District Energy can’t get shipments in
705.2 The 1997 and 2001 High-Water Mark at Chestnut St
706.9 The 1965 High-Water Mark at Chestnut St
708.5 Riverbend Industrial park floods (not confirmed!)
711.5 500-Year Flood line at Chestnut St
711.6 The Science Museum floods
713.5 Pig’s Eye Sewage Treatment Plant shuts down and floods
715.0 Newest condos/apartments flood
716+ -> it only gets worse <-

The short version of it is that we can see that a “100 year flood” happens at least every 10 years anymore. We still like to use the “official” numbers because they appear to carry a lot of meaning, but they clearly do not. They can’t be adjusted largely because they are “official,” and admitting that the “100 year flood” reaches higher than we thought would break plans, insurance contracts, and a lot of other things which have a ton of money riding on them. So we leave the numbers in place and watch the Mississippi do what it does.

So much for control.

No one is going to experience any major damage from this one, so we can sit back and watch the water slowly rise. As disasters go, it’s pretty tame stuff. My own house, which is also near Chestnut Street, is up on the bluff where it has not flooded since the end of the last ice age, meaning that we’d have far bigger problems before we have to worry about high water.

Since the crest of high water is not expected until tomorrow, we have a lot of time to sit back and watch the water rise as a steady stream of people come down to see it for themselves. It’s all a bit of a yawn, just like a lazy spring day with a little bit of warmth. It’s also a good time to contemplate how good we are, as a people, at kidding ourselves over how much control we have over the world we like to think we’ve tamed.