With the Mississippi River reaching a second crest in La Crosse Monday, it still could be weeks before the river is opened to barges and pleasure craft.
"It looks like it's going to be a while," said Jason Neubauer of the U.S. Coast Guard in St. Paul, Minn. "I can't give a firm date, but it will be at least a week and maybe longer.
"We'd be looking at a level of flood stage, (which is 12 feet in La Crosse.) Even if it drops to flood stage, we'd have to make sure levees aren't soft. There's some big concern about the levees right now. They're starting to soften up because of the wave action."
The Mississippi reached 15.78 feet early Monday before falling slightly. After the first crest of 16.41 feet April 18, the water dropped to about 15.1 feet before rising again because of heavy rains to the north.
"I am fed up with water," Donna Newmann said from her French Island home. "It was down last week - we were able to park in front - and all of a sudden it came up again."
A chance of showers all this week is not expected to swell the river again, according to the National Weather Service in La Crosse. The river should drop slowly, but it might not fall below flood stage until mid-May, forecasters said.
"It looks like it will be a slow, slow drop," meteorologist Scott Watson said. "In the next few days, it will probably just stay steady or drop a tenth of an inch or two."
Al Spaulding, La Crosse County emergency management director, said boating is unsafe right now because of debris and the river's swift current. And because wake would cause levee and property damage, barge operators and recreational boaters must wait, he said.
"If we don't get any extra rain, I would say two to three weeks," Spaulding said. "That's just a wild guess."
The weather service said rain accumulation this week could be a quarter- to a half-inch. "We can't pin down how much," Watson said. "It's still fairly uncertain as to where the weather system will end up,"
Nothing is moving on the Mississippi north of St. Louis, as debris-choked high water has paralyzed the locks that make shipping on the river possible from Minneapolis to Guttenberg, Iowa. The suspended shipping season is inflicting economic damage that reaches beyond the river's idled ports. About $1 billion worth of corn, soybeans and wheat crops are transported annually.
Also docked are barges holding much-needed fertilizer for spring planting. When a 403-mile stretch of the Upper Mississippi finally opens again, it could take weeks to get back to normal.
"I can't recall a year that was worse," said LeRoy Czaplewski, manager of the Agriliance Agronomy Warehouse in Winona, Minn. Fertilizer is especially important for growing corn, which is Minnesota and Wisconsin farmers' largest crop.
That could drive fertilizer prices, already inflated because of the ballooning price of natural gas, even higher. Farmers who haven't locked in pre-plant fertilizer prices are last in line to receive the diminishing supply and could pay soaring prices once it becomes available.
While farmers can make do without pre-plant fertilizer, their yields could drop without the starter fertilizer that goes in at the same time seeds are planted, said Chuck Schwartau, a University of Minnesota extension educator in southeastern Minnesota.
Mississippi barge operators - keeping busy from St. Louis south, where the river is open - are anxious to begin moving commodities to the head of the river's shipping corridor, where some business is already being lost to alternative markets via trucks and trains, said Russ Eichman, executive director of the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association, a barge-operator trade association.
While confident that eight months worth of shipping - about 17 million tons of commodities in a normal shipping season - can be moved up and down the river in six months, Eichman said, the swollen river is still affecting shippers.
"It's not going to get going with the snap of a finger once the waters recede," Eichman said. "Everything takes a little time. Crews might have to be laid off in the meantime; people that crew the towboats are waiting to go back to work."
Cmdr. Adolfo Ramirez of the Coast Guard in St. Louis, said locks might be opened on a staggered basis to avoid "traffic bottlenecks."
"We are concerned about the impact the closure has on the river's recreational and commercial boating communities, as well as the agricultural community," Ramirez said. "We are also concerned about the impact vessel traffic could have on stressed and saturated levees, as well as the Coast Guard-maintained aids to navigation."
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)