- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana levee districts have begun twice-weekly checks of Mississippi River levees south of Baton Rouge because the river at New Orleans is 11 feet and rising.

The extra patrols are a standard precaution in such conditions, corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said Monday. Other precautions include a ban on subsurface work within 1,500 feet of the levees, hauling heavy loads over the levees, or other work that might damage the levees.

“We’re coming into that time of year when we generally do see a rise in the river, in the spring,” he said. “It’s a chance for us to get out, checking the levees in the advance of any significant water coming our way.”

The river never fell to normal winter levels after floods in December and January, and is rising again after weeks of rain in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys, according to National Weather Service hydrologist Jeff Grashel. None of the rain was heavy enough in one area to cause significant flooding; it was just persistent and widespread, he said.

He said some heavy rain is expected next week and, depending on where it falls, the river could stay above 11 feet in New Orleans into early April.

“We might stay above 11 feet if the rainfall materializes over parts of Arkansas and middle portions of the Mississippi Valley and the Ohio Valley,” he said. “If it would be a little further southward, there may be a chance we could get below 11 feet at New Orleans.”

Grashel said 11-foot depths are common from March through May at the gauge near the shore - the ship channel is dredged much deeper. In the dry times for late summer and early fall, the depth at that gauge averages 3 to 5 feet, he said.

Boyett said forecasts so far don’t predict the 15-foot level at New Orleans that would trigger daily inspections of nearly 400 miles of levees - about half on each bank - south of Baton Rouge. “The 13-foot range is what we’re expecting,” he said.

The 490 miles of levees north of Baton Rouge are built to withstand higher, faster-moving water than those from Baton Rouge on down, he said. Boyett said the corps expects to extend the precautions now in effect south of Baton Rouge to the upriver area at some point, but doesn’t have a date.

Still farther north, at Vicksburg, Mississippi, corps spokesman Greg Raimondo says forecasts so far don’t predict the 44-foot level at Vicksburg that would trigger “phase 1” precautions. According to a weather service webpage, the river is expected to crest there at 39.5 feet.

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