Drought drops river levels to ‘extremely low’ levels

Recent dry weather has left its imprint on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and the Namekagon River that feeds it; Both rivers have seen historically low water levels in recent weeks, on top of rising water temperatures.

According to the National Park Service (NPS), the St. Croix and Namekagon river levels - measured at various places along both water bodies - have fallen to a level that might make some types of recreation, boat and canoe travel difficult, at best.

The Namekagon levels, flow and temperature are measured at several spots from Bayfield County south to the St. Croix River, with a daily discharge rate falling into the lower 25th percentile, compared to the mean and median of the last 22 years of data. 

For reference, the highest levels recorded in that 22-year span were just two years ago in the summer of 2019, while the lowest recent levels occurred in the summer of 2007.

The NPS has listed both the Namekagon and the St. Croix rivers as having ‘Extreme Low Water Levels’ and shows specific monitoring sites that may have water levels so low that people might require dragging or portaging their kayaks and canoes in several spots, and that it might seriously limit the use of deeper-draft vessels like pontoon boats, runabouts or V-hull vessels.

The data on the Namekagon levels being so low upstream are also an indication that downstream levels are sure to drop, as well, which means the St. Croix will likely continue to fall as the recent drought continues.

The St. Croix Riverway levels are lowest the farther north you go, with the Gordon Dam Landing to the CCC Bridge Landing listed as ‘Extremely Low,’ and continuing at that level downstream to the Riverside Landing, then to the Norway Point Landing and then to the Highway 70 Landing, west of Grantsburg, where the levels start to stabilize slightly, and are currently listed as being ‘Very Low.’ 

The level south of the Highway 70 Landing to Nevers Dam are still listed as just being ‘Low.’ Below Nevers Dam the level is still considered ‘Good,’ but the upstream conditions are likely to impact that area in the coming days and weeks, also. Levels below the St. Croix Falls Hydroelectric Dam are also starting to fall off, and may change even more dramatically in the next few weeks without significant rains. 

The NPS is also warning people who use kayaks or canoes on any of the affected low water level stretches to be extra careful, as there may be atypical currents, excess or unusual debris and potentially lots of rocks to traverse or damage a boat or canoe hull.

The NPS releases river level reports based on the volume of river flow in cubic feet per second (cfs) at five monitored stations, as well as river level height as observed by park personnel and volunteers at several locations.

Lake levels have also fallen locally in recent weeks, especially for static lakes that rely on run-off, compared to spring or creek-fed bodies of water. Several lakes associations have also raised red flags about historically low lake levels, which when combined with seasonally hot temperatures can dramatically raise the temperature of a lake, causing oxygen-level reductions, which can lead to fish kills while also affecting spawning and fueling the growth of non-native plants or creatures, adding to the difficulty of controlling certain invasive weeds, which can then thrive even more as they get more sunlight with shallower water levels.