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Life along the Mississippi River is showing signs of returning to normal three weeks after the river's 16.41-foot crest, but people in the hardest-hit areas are still waiting to start a massive cleanup effort.

Authorities expect to open a stretch of the Mississippi River to boat traffic Wednesday as the water level falls to about 13.7 feet in La Crosse. Boats will be allowed on the river north of Guttenberg, Iowa, and south of Hastings, Minn. - a stretch that includes Winona, Minn., and La Crosse and Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin.

Because the water still is well above the 12-foot flood stage at La Crosse, no-wake zones likely will be in effect at various points from local authorities.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and various state Emergency Management officials met Monday to hash out when the river could safely be opened. Officials cautioned that boating still can be hazardous due to strong currents and submerged driftwood.

"There's still a lot of debris in the water," said Lt. Chris O'Neil, public relations officer with the Coast Guard. "The river is still running fairly rapidly."

The Coast Guard's decision to open the river is based on the Corps' decision to begin operating the locks and dams along that stretch, as well as diminishing river stages and flow. They also considered the rainfall amounts and National Weather Service projections, which show a continued drop in the river despite a record May 2 rainfall of 1.59 inches in La Crosse.

The La Crosse area is gearing up for the cleanup effort as waters are expected to recede to about 12.3 feet by Saturday, according to the National Weather Service in La Crosse.

The Salvation Army is distributing cleanup kits, sponges and sump pumps - donated by the Home Depot store in Onalaska - at its office at 223 N. Eighth St. in La Crosse, or by calling (608) 782-6126 between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays.

Some of the city's earthen dikes will be left in place, Caffrey said, but the slopes will be made more gradual. Others will be trucked back to the source on Isle La Plume, and used for the usual fill needs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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