The first barge in the Upper Mississippi navigation system broke through the ice on Lake Pepin over the weekend. 

The tow along with the Motor Vessel Neil N. Diehl was the first to break through the ice this year. 

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, locked the Motor Vessel Philip M Pfeffer with six barges through Lock and Dam 2 in Hastings on March 12,” representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers said in a news release. 

This marks the unofficial start to the 2023 Upper Mississippi navigation season. 

This comes earlier this year than usual.

“This year’s tow was about one week ahead of the average. In the last 30 years, the average opening date of the navigation season has been March 20,” the Army Corps of Engineers stated in a news release. 

The first barge arrived in St. Paul last year on March 21. The earliest date for an up-bound tow to reach Lock and Dam 2 in Hastings was March 4 in the years 1983, 1984 and 2000. 

The navigation season started as late as April in the past. 

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, “The latest arrival date in a non-flood year was April 4, 2008. Historic flooding in 2001 delayed the arrival of the first tow until May 11.”

Lake Pepin is the last major barrier for the barges to break through along the Mississippi River when heading to St. Paul. 

“Lake Pepin is the last part of the river to break up because the river is wider and subsequently the current is slower there than it is in other parts of the river,” the Army Corps of Engineers stated in a news release. “If a tow can make it through Lake Pepin, it can make it all the way to St. Paul.”

The Army Corps of Engineers measures the ice thickness on Lake Pepin throughout the spring, this year they took first measurements on Feb. 17. 

At the time the measurements ranged from 6 inches to 20 inches. Reports indicated that the ice was thinner this year than in the past, which may have led to an early navigation season. 

“The St. Paul District maintains a 9-foot deep navigation channel and operates 12 locks and dams to support navigation from Minneapolis to Guttenberg, Iowa,” the Army Corps of Engineers stated. “Keeping this system open is vital to the nation’s economy.” 

The barges carry goods and help with economic savings. 

“A 15- barge tow can move as much bulk commodities as 1,050 semi trucks or more than 200 rail cars,” the Army Corps of Engineers stated, “The commercial navigation industry estimates an annual average savings of nearly $430 million by using inland waterways.” 

Throughout the summer residents and visitors in Red Wing can watch barges move past the city on the Mississippi River.

Many residents enjoy watching the barges make the “big-turn” at Baypoint Park.

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