As Mississippi dips below flood stage, businesses look for activity to pick up

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The Mississippi River finally dipped below the flood stage of 16 feet at McGregor on June 11. Marquette and McGregor businesses are hopeful activity will begin to pick up now. “Things are coming around,” said Robert Vavra, whose Maiden Voyage boat tours are up and running in Marquette. (Photo by Kamryn Tesar)

In a sign that summer—and the tourism it brings to the area—is finally ready to start, boats have started to trickle in to the Marquette marina. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

The Mississippi River finally dipped below the flood stage of 16 feet at McGregor on Tuesday night, June 11—87 days after the National Weather Service (NWS) issued the first flood warning on March 16.

The length of time at or above flood stage obliterated the record for the location, which was an estimated 31 days from April 14 to May 14, 2001. NWS data shows other long stretches included 29 days from June 23 to July 21, 1993 and 26 days from April 12 to May 7, 1965.

The prolonged high water, which included three separate crests over 19 feet, hasn’t made the past few months easy for businesses in Marquette and McGregor—communities that rely on the tourism and commerce the Mighty Mississippi brings.

Café McGregor owner Brenda Boeke said patronage was noticeably down in April and May, citing a combination of the high water and a wet spring as the culprit.

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ latest water summary update, this May was the state’s sixth wettest on record.

“People who enjoy the river were held hostage,” Boeke said, “and rain kept people from camping and hiking and just walking around town.”

If it was a nice weekend, people spent time in their gardens or fields, or attending graduation parties, noted Jen White, who owns the book and gift store Paper Moon with her mom, Louise.

Pocket City Pub owner Bart Knight said the bar typically looks for traffic to increase around Memorial Day weekend. While they’ve still been seeing their local regulars around 5 p.m., the later evening crowd, made up of tourists and seasonal visitors, has yet to materialize.

“You’re used to them coming back; you get bonded to them,” Knight said of the personal connection he forms with customers. 

It’s also discouraging from a business standpoint.

“You know you’re losing out on that time you can’t get back,” he added. “But it affects every business. We’re all in the same boat.”

At the Bunge grain elevator, in McGregor, manager Huntley Leverenz said flooding up and down the Mississippi has brought barge movement to a standstill. Grain from local farmers can’t move south, and fertilizer can’t head north.

“Trucking—the whole ag industry—it’s all affected,” he shared.

Operations there, which usually pick up in late March or early April, are two to three months behind schedule. Leverenz estimates it will be July, at the earliest, before the river is fully open to barge traffic.

“If we continue to get rain, there will continue to be logistical issues for the barges,” he stated.

Once the river opens, Leverenz said Bunge will have a much shorter window in which to work. Thirty to 40 barges could come through each week.

Recreational boaters will have to be aware, “because safety will be a factor,” he said.

Working and living near the river, the business owners admitted flooding is often expected—albeit for not this long a stretch. 

“Other years have been worse,” said White, adding that business was impacted more in the wake of the July 2017 tornado. 

Knight said the closure of the Holiday Shores Motel on the McGregor riverfront is still being felt, as well.

“You can’t do anything about a river,” he remarked. “What we need is foot traffic, and a motel would bring that back.”

They’re not going to let the river keep them from being optimistic about this summer.

“We’ve been down, but we’re not going to get down,” Boeke said. “The river’s not the only attraction. There’s plenty to do and see: Pikes Peak, Effigy Mounds, Spook Cave. We’re here rain or shine, high or low, and we’re ready to go. I hope it picks up soon.”

White said she’s already seen signs of that.

“We’re seeing definite families vacationing now,” she shared.

Pocket City Pub’s participation in the Mississippi Booze Cruise summer pub crawl event has buoyed sales, Knight said.

“If they can’t come by boat, they’re coming on motorcycles and in cars,” he noted.

Robert Vavra’s Maiden Voyage boat tours are up and running in Marquette. He’s even taken advantage of the high water to access areas of the river he otherwise couldn’t. Passengers are seeing otters and beavers and an abundance of neo-tropical birds from places like Venezuela and Peru.

The fishing has also been good, he said. And, as owner of the Marquette marina, he’s seen the seasonal boaters start to trickle in, utilizing the docks and slips he’s worked so hard to maintain.

“Things are coming around,” Vavra stressed. He expects that trend to continue as the Mississippi drops further, to under 13 feet later this week.

“This week, summer is going to start. Services on the river should start to come to life,” he said. “We need that word to spread.”

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