Mississippi River flooding reaching record-high levels, still rising along western Wisconsin

With the river expected to crest later this week, floodwaters have already shut down roads, parks in river communities

Floodwaters partially covers a statue of two children in La Crosse's Riverside Park
Flooding on the Mississippi River partially covers a statue in Riverside Park in La Crosse on Monday, April 24, 2023. Hope Kirwan/WPR

The Mississippi River hit major flood stage in La Crosse and other communities over the weekend, setting up for record-setting crests expected later this week.

On Sunday evening, the river officially surpassed 15.5 feet in La Crosse. According to the National Weather Service Office in La Crosse, it’s only the third time the river has reached major flood stage since recordkeeping began in 1874.

A river gauge shows floodwaters nearing 16 feet at a La Crosse park
Floodwaters near 16 feet on a historic river gauge in Riverside Park in La Crosse on Monday, April 24, 2023. Hope Kirwan/WPR

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Streets through Riverside Park in downtown La Crosse are closed due to flooding over the road and into the park. Pettibone Park, which sits on a small island across the downtown area has been closed for over a week due to flooding.

Meteorologist Jeff Makowski said the river is forecast to reach just over 16 feet in La Crosse, the third-highest on record behind the 2001 flood of 16.41 feet and 1965 flood that reached 17.89 feet.

“We’ve been in flood stage now for several days already and we’ve been slowly climbing to what looks to be the crest through the middle and end of this week,” Makowski said.

Flooding has already impacted some homes and businesses in the Town of Campbell, which is located on French Island between the Mississippi and Black Rivers.

Lee Donahue, who sits on the town’s Board of Supervisors, said floodwaters have encircled a handful of older homes on the southern half of the island and water is currently covering roads in a few areas. She said evacuations on the island remain voluntary and as of Sunday evening only one household had reported that they were evacuating.

Donahue said town officials worked over the weekend to pump water away from one of the major streets on the island to ensure businesses on the road could continue to operate.

“Where the water covers the road, we’ve closed the road to everyone unless you live on that road,” Donahue said. “Obviously we’re taking pumps and equipment and things back and forth across the island and all of the additional traffic of people who just want to come and look impedes the ability to conduct business.”

Floodwaters completely cover a small street
Floodwaters covers Usher St. on French Island on Monday, April 24, 2023. Courtesy of Lee Donahue

She said vehicles driving through floodwaters cause additional waves, which can erode landscaping and put additional pressure on the walls of homes and other buildings.

In preparation for higher waters this week, Donahue said the town is continuing to ready sandbags and is standing by to build or reinforce levies. She said the town’s maintenance department is also busy managing the sewer system to allow for pumping when needed.

North of La Crosse, the Mississippi River at Wabasha, Minnesota, crossed into major flood stage Saturday evening. It’s expected to crest at 17.2 feet early this week, which would be the fourth-highest on record.

To the south, the river near Prairie du Chien crossed into major flood stage at 22 feet on Monday. It’s currently forecast to crest at 24.4 feet this weekend, which would be the second-highest on record and one foot shy of the 1965 record.

Aerial photos posted to Facebook by Crawford County Emergency Management show much of St. Feriole Island, which has a public park and the Villa Louis Historic Site, was underwater. A map of projected flooding shared on the page showed water is expected to impact homes and businesses closest to the river at the expected crest.

Makowski said significant snow in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota this winter means there is a lot of water making its way through the system this spring, which could be further complicated by additional precipitation through the season.

“If it remains wetter, and we have more rainfall and thunderstorms, that could cause the river stages to stay elevated for a longer period of time than say if we get into a more prolonged dry spell which would allow the river levels to come down from these crests more steadily going through the next month or so,” he said.

He said the region should stay mostly dry this week, but widespread rainfall is expected in the area heading into the weekend.