St. Croix River reaches record-low water

Months of dry conditions have sent the river plunging to levels not seen in decades.

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The St. Croix River’s water is really low right now — nearly as shallow as it’s ever been in recorded history. On Monday, June 14, the river at Stillwater briefly dipped below the record low level set on July 1, 1988, during the major drought of that year.

The current low water is the result of a lengthy dry spell, not only the hot and rainless recent weeks but a winter with low snow, and a river that was already pretty low last fall when it froze over.

“We didn’t get that much snow, so the reservoirs weren’t able to fill up as much as they would like, so they can’t release as much water that would keep the river levels up further downstream and such,” Mike Welvaert, a hydrologist with the North Central River Forecast Center in Chanhassen, told MPR News. “And then the soils were drier because there wasn’t that much snow to soak in and get the soils moistened up for the year.”

The lower river is also affected by operations of the dam on the Mississippi River at Red Wing. The Mississippi is very low, too, contributing to the St. Croix’s condition.

Map by Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360

About 75 percent of the St. Croix River’s watershed was designated as “Abnormally Dry” in the weekly Drought Monitor, published by the National Drought Mitigation Center.

“Generally warm and dry conditions prevailed in the northern half of the region over the past week, leading to widespread worsening of drought and dryness,” reports the Drought Monitor. “In northern portions of Wisconsin and the Michigan Upper Peninsula, rain this week kept encroachment of drought or abnormal dryness at bay.”

The low water has left a lot of beaches and sandbars open, and caused some boating difficulties.

“It’s just nuts. We sit and watch people run into stuff pretty much all day long,” Stillwater mayor and regular river boater Ted Kozlowski told the Pioneer Press.

Boaters are warned that upstream of the Stillwater Lift Bridge is particularly challenging. Large boats and less experienced captains should stay south of the bridge.

The water is also low farther upstream. At Osceola Landing, one launch ramp already ends before reaching the water.

There are some very large sand flats along parts of the river, but most of this stretch is still navigable by canoes at time of writing.

At Danbury, the river has hit its lowest levels since a moderate drought in August 2007.

There are glimmers of hope for rain that could help the river in the next week, but

“As of June 16, the National Weather Service (NWS) Weather Prediction Center is forecasting two areas of significant precipitation through the evening of June 21,” the agency reports. “One area of forecast rain covers much of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley regions, and could be highly beneficial to southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois if it occurs.”

Right now, the river at Stillwater is forecasted to stay very low, but above the record level for the foreseeable future.


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5 responses to “St. Croix River reaches record-low water”

  1. Steve Johnson Avatar
    Steve Johnson

    The Stillwater gauge reading is actually nowhere near a “record” low. Construction of Lock/Dam 3 near Red Wing raised the level of Lake St. Croix about five feet in the 1930s; that affects water level in the St. Croix from a bit north of Stillwater on south. The sill of the dam at Red Wing is at elevation 675.0, so the river level at Stillwater can’t get below 675.0; the last reading I noticed it was at 675.2, which means the river drops two tenths of a foot from Stillwater to Lock/Dam 3, a distance of about 30 miles. Not much current. Prior to dam construction in the 1930s, old-timers talked about walking across the river at Stillwater during summer dry spells. The area between the railroad bridge and the dike road at Hudson was a hay field; cattle grazed there.

    1. Harpers Avatar
      Harpers

      You can see the low flow in the 1930s in a picture in McDonalds off hwy5 in Stillwater

    2. Mike jones Avatar
      Mike jones

      Steve is correct. It’s as simple as typing in “St. Croix water level Stillwater.”

      1. Greg Seitz Avatar

        Steve is correct and so is the article. The only record broken mentioned in the article is the 1988 level. Nothing says it wasn’t lower before then.

    3. John E Avatar
      John E

      Thanks Steve!

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St. Croix River reaches record-low water