Receding river releases Coast Guard in Dubuque for cleanup

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DUBUQUE, Iowa (KCRG) -- The Coast Guard in Dubuque is finally out on the Mississippi River after being stuck in the Port of Dubuque Marina for nearly three months.

A US Coast Guardsman supervises the USCGC Wyaconda boat deck on the Mississippi River at Dubuque on Tuesday, June 18. (Allison Wong, KCRG)

The Mississippi was above flood stage, which is 17 feet, for 85 days. The Port of Dubuque flood gates had to be closed that entire time, which meant the USCGC Wyaconda wasn't able to move.

The boat left the marina on Tuesday, June 18 to head north to St. Paul, Minnesota. Along the way, the coast guardsmen will repair and move buoys.

"We’re looking for buoys that were off station, so dragged off station by either drift or by ice or swift water," Chief Petty Officer Travis Cook explained.

To do that, it takes about a dozen people. Cook and other officers station themselves in the wheelhouse at the top of the boat to look out for buoys. When they come across one that's not where it's supposed to be, the boat slows down so crew members can attach a chain to it. Then, the boat drags the buoy along until it gets to its proper location.

They might also replace a buoy that's no longer floating above the water. In that case, the crew attaches a chain to it, pulls it onto the boat, and then dumps a new one back into the river.

Cook says it's unusual for them to begin this work so late in the year.

He said, "we’re normally on the river by early March in a typical year."

Along the way, the coast guardsmen will also tend to lights and beacons destroyed by the high water. Cook says damage gets worse the higher and longer the river is up.

Fireman James Woods, who is from Virginia and is newly stationed in Dubuque, says he's not used to seeing damage like this.

"Everything is messed up. All the buoys are gone or scrapped, so it’s just nonstop," Woods said.

Cook says their work is important because it keeps boaters safe.

“It’s primarily for safe navigation by the towing vessels that use the river," he explained. "You’ve probably seen them pushing tows up to 15 barges up and down the river, and they need those buoys and lights to help determine where there’s sufficiently deep water to navigate.”

It will take the boat about 10 days to get to St. Paul. Once there, Cook says they'll turn around and come back to Dubuque, get supplies, and then go south to continue their work.