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There's water, water everywhere on La Crosse's North Side.

It's been in Melanie Nimmo's Livingston Street basement for more than two weeks, since the Mississippi River rose over flood stage, and Wednesday it was in her neighborhood's streets.

Afternoon rains closed Rose, St. Cloud and George streets during rush hour Wednesday, though they were reopened before nightfall.

Only about 0.5 inch of rain fell overnight, but it was enough in the already-saturated area to trigger flooding in low-lying intersections that normally wouldn't have water problems without a much heavier downpour, Public Works Director Pat Caffrey said.

"We had some good street flooding between 6 and 7 a.m., but the pumps got it down," Caffrey said.

Excessive groundwater has overburdened the city's storm and sanitary sewer systems, forcing the city to start dumping untreated sewage into the Black River for the first time Wednesday, Caffrey said. The town of Campbell has been putting sewage into the river at two locations since April 16.

Without bypassing the normal treatment process, Caffrey said he feared sewage pumps would burn out and cause sewage to back up into people's homes. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has been notified, Caffrey said.

The flood also is preventing La Crosse from treating its sewage for fecal coliform bacteria, said Charlie Cameron, an environmental engineer with the DNR. The DNR requires fecal coliform treatments from May 1 to Sept. 30, when people are likely to swim in the river.

La Crosse uses an ultraviolet light system to disinfect its treated sewage. But the water is so high that if La Crosse used the system, water would back up into it, Cameron said.

Caffrey said the city's dikes are still holding up well, which keeps low-lying areas of the North Side from being swamped. But dikes can't hold back the rising groundwater, which seeps into basements, crawl spaces, sewers and even yards.

Many North Side homes have tell-tale hoses running to the street from their sump pumps.

"We had to buy a new sump pump because the old one crapped out," said Nimmo, 812 Livingston St. "But the new one works better."

One of the harder-hit homeowners is Sonja Potter, 705 Livingston St. "We've been through three floods - 1993, 1997 and this year. This is the worst," she said. Her basement walls are failing, she said. "We've got dirt coming through the walls."

"I have no hot water heater and no furnace," she said. "My brother borrowed me an electric heater for when it was cold."

Potter said she upped her flood insurance this year to cover the contents of her basement, but she's nervous about how the insurance company will handle her claim.

In anticipation of the flooding, Potter had the blower motor removed from her furnace. But the water reached high enough at one point - three feet - to get into other components of the furnace. She still has about 1.5 feet of standing water, she said.

"We pretty much knew it would be bad," said Nimmo. She had moved all the furnishings from her basement into storage, but she's concerned the water in her basement will rise high enough to put the water heater out of commission. If that happens, she'll have to close her day care business, she said.

That's already happened to Geri Brown, 1917 Avon St.

"We've lived here 13 years, and this is the first year we've had to turn off the gas hot water heater and the furnace," said Brown. "I had to shut down my home day care business two weeks ago because we had no hot water heater."

At first, the Browns thought they'd do all right this time because they had only 6 to 8 inches of water when the river crested at 16.41 feet. "Afterward, we got hit with 20 inches with one of those big rain storms."

Despite the problems, Brown said she's staying.

"It's one of the costs of living on the river," she said. "We love where we're at. There's always good along with the bad."

Farther east at the corner of Livingston and Liberty streets, Donald Hammes didn't get water in his basement until the river hit 15 feet. His basement is finished, so he moved everything but the carpet into his garage ahead of the water.

"I'm worried about the carpet," said Hammes, a member of the La Crosse County Board. "But you live with it. The water's clean, not dirty."

Brown said she's concerned about the cleanup, and hasn't been able to find satisfactory information about how to disinfect her basement once the water goes down.

She may have plenty of time to search. Cameron said high groundwater will be around long after the river returns to normal levels.

That means sewers will be overburdened for some time to come, and raw sewage will be dumped in the river, Cameron said. "We're warning people not to be messing around in the water. Don't touch it without gloves or walk in it without rubber boots," he said.

Reid can be reached at rmagney@lacrossetribune.com or (608) 791-8211.

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