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Major flood forecast could test Afton's new $20 million levee and pumps

After a major investment in flood prevention over the last decade, Afton businesses are bracing for a big test this spring.

AFTON, Minn. — The city of Stillwater declared a state of emergency this week as an updated flood outlook gave the St. Croix River an 80 percent chance of reaching major flood stage.

But, as the city began closing parks and the pedestrian lift bridge in order to begin preparations for a temporary levee, the vibe was a lot different downstream in Afton.

"It's almost kind of unsettling that we're not doing this like we used to," said Afton Mayor Bill Palmquist. 

Up until about five years ago, Palmquist and the rest of town would have been preparing their own levee and sandbagging operations, while getting volunteers lined up to staff pumps in order to keep the historic downtown from filling up with water.

But thanks to a $20 million investment, which shored up the levee, storm sewer, and pumping system, there is far less to worry about... at least for now.

"Our levee system is automated and it's certified up at 695 feet," Palmquist said. "The all-time record is 694.1 feet back in 1965, so I feel pretty good. But, you know, when there's a 15% chance that it could maybe get to the top of this, it's a little nerve-wracking."

That also makes it a little nerve-wracking for Rebecca Nickerson, owner of Selma's Ice Cream Parlour.

"We are the lowest point in Afton," Nickerson said. "So that's why we do have a little bit of concern. We've been through big floods before."

During the record flood in 1965, flood waters reached the top of the windows.

"Fortunately the building is higher now," Nickerson said. "It was raised in 1999 by about four or four and a half feet. So that water would reach about waist high now."

But if the river even nears record levels in the coming weeks, the city has plans to deploy an additional levee on top of its new one, and it can all happen within just 48 hours.

Palmquist: "We can pretty quickly raise the levee three feet, a little more than three feet actually."

Kent Erdahl: "So, good news for the ice cream shop staying open?" 

Palmquist: "It's great news for the ice cream shop. It will be open no matter what." 

Erdahl: "That's a guarantee from the mayor?" 

Pamquist: "That's a guarantee from the mayor." 

That's a promise everyone can raise a cone to.

"I have (the mayor) recorded saying that," Nickerson said with a laugh. "I'm kidding, but we did talk last night and I'm as confident as he is. This is really going to put the levee to the test. It hasn't really been tested yet, so after this year, I think we'll feel even more confident about going forward."   

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