The Mississippi River's springtime swell got an early start this year which could force the opening of the Bonnet Carré spillway before the end of the month.
Regular levee inspections began in February. Levee inspections and restrictions on shipping and construction are expected to ramp up in early March.
While Louisiana was celebrating Mardi Gras, folks in Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Ohio were starting to get pounded by heavy rain, which is now making its way downriver, said meteorologist Gavin Phillips of the National Weather Service's Slidell office.
Since it was winter, plants were more dormant and didn't help soak up as much water as they might have later in the year, he said.
By Sunday, the Mississippi at Baton Rouge had entered what the NWS calls the "action phase" — not a flood, but a cause for monitoring.
Rivers have different flood stages: minor, moderate and major. For a body of water that lacks levees, like the Amite or the Comite, those stages represent various stages of destructive flood power. The Mississippi has 47-foot high levees plus spillways, to contain even a major flood, though as the water level creeps up, the Army Corps of Engineers increases its response.
Currently, the Corps is inspecting the earthen levees once a week north of Baton Rouge and twice a week south of Baton Rouge, said public affairs officer Ricky Boyett.
They look for areas where water is seeping through, or where the weight of the water is pushing it through or under the levee, known as a sand boil.
The Corps is paying particular attention to a spot near Angola, Boyett said. Inmates are used to sandbagging the area themselves, he said, but part of the levee slid away in 2016, so Corps crews are out their hustling to get it rebuilt.
The Coast Guard, meanwhile, is beginning to restrict shipping around Baton Rouge as the River hits its minor flood stage of 35 feet. On Friday, barges headed downriver will need to be guided by assist vessels, and the guard will halt nighttime navigation, said Petty Officer Brandon Giles.
Around the middle of next week, the river will hit moderate flood stage of 38 feet. The Corps expects to begin daily inspections of levees throughout Louisiana on March 8. They'll also halt certain work within 1,500 feet that could undermine the levees, such as using heavy machinery to lay a water line, Boyett said.
The speed with which the river has begun to swell is surprising, Phillips said.
"It's definitely a worse than average (flood) season already," he said.
Still, it's too early to tell exactly how it will all play out. The Weather Service forecasts the Mississippi will hit major flood stage by St. Patrick's Day, but Phillips said it's impossible to accurately predict that far in advance.
Meteorologists' updated Wednesday afternoon forecast called for the river rising another two feet, crossing the threshold where the Corps will consider opening the Bonnet Carré spillway later this month, Boyett said. However, there's still nothing in the forecast that indicates they'll have to open the Morganza spillway, something that last happened when the river reached record high levels in May of 2011.
Boyett and Phillips both noted, though, that conditions can fluctuate as the season progresses.