WINTHROP, Missouri — After two months of blockage by the swollen Missouri River, the fastest route to St. Joseph, Missouri, has been cleared as the waters recede, with some restrictions.
The Missouri Department of Transportation is operating a one-way alternating-traffic temporary stoplight on U.S. Highway 59 in the Winthrop area between Rushville and Atchison, while crews clean and repair the road to a point where it can be fully opened. No major damage has been reported along the road, and the highway is expected to remain open for the foreseeable future, once it is cleared off and both lanes come online.
“With the river predictions, it should stay open for several weeks, maybe longer,” said Wes Lanter, Atchison County Emergency Management director.
Traffic on U.S. Highway 36 extending east-west beyond the Pony Express Bridge in the St. Joseph area has been elevated, as this offered the only practical route from St. Joseph during the closure across the river to Doniphan County, Atchison County and their surrounding areas.
As the newly re-opened route saves between 15 and 30 minutes of travel time for drivers traveling between St. Joseph and Atchison, normal patterns are expected to resume.
The closure of the last two months is related to the flood stage of the Missouri River, as tracked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. According to NOAA hydrographs, river levels near Atchison are forecast to fall below 22 feet overnight on Tuesday, July 9, taking it below Minor Flood Stage.
This is crucial for the area because of ongoing structural faults in the Rushville/Silver Lake levees around Winthrop and the nearby low-lying stretch of U.S. Highway 59. Such levee breaches happened in March, when the river first crested into Major Flood Stage and produced the highest observed water levels since 1993. As things stand, if the river is high enough, U.S. Highway 59 will likely flood.
Local water levels are largely influenced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Corps’ ability to manage the levels of its flood control reservoirs in the Dakotas, which contain the large amounts of rainfall and snowmelt the Midwest has experienced in the last six months.
Releases from the last significant flood control installation upriver from Northeast Kansas and Northwest Missouri, Gavins Point Dam, will continue to affect how long U.S. Highway 59 might stay open.
“(It) could change if they release water from Gavins Point,” Lanter said.