A Sewer Runs Through It

The River des Peres tells the history of St. Louis -- our relationship to nature, to this place, to our own waste. Now there's talk of "beautifying" the river we never got around to cleaning.

After mucking about for months in the foul odors and floods of the River des Peres, city engineer W.W. Horner dried his boots and prepared a book-length report, complete with drawings and sepia photos, outlining the necessary improvements. He attached a cover letter, dated Dec. 16, 1916, to the Hon. E.R. Kinsey, president of the St. Louis Board of Public Service:

Dear Sir:

Exactly 40 years ago, the City of St. Louis took to itself a portion of the River des Peres Valley. The stream was then a common country brook, clear and attractive, but subject to freshets which submerged an occasional cornfield. Since that time the City has proceeded to occupy the valley and has used the stream as a dumping ground for rubbish and sewage, and because the stream is no longer able to purify itself, it is looked upon with aversion.... The City has forced on the stream a utilitarian character, which it is unable to assume and the result is an ugly and inefficient sewer.

A stretch of the "natural" River des Peres in University City, free of concrete but corrupted by runoff, junk and the occasional corpse.
A stretch of the "natural" River des Peres in University City, free of concrete but corrupted by runoff, junk and the occasional corpse.
A stretch of the "natural" River des Peres in University City, free of concrete but corrupted by runoff, junk and the occasional corpse.
Jennifer Silverberg
A stretch of the "natural" River des Peres in University City, free of concrete but corrupted by runoff, junk and the occasional corpse.

Ten years later, Horner's message sank in: The city turned the ruined river into an official sewer, burying most of it in pipes underground. What we see today at the surface -- our "River Despair," our "River da Stink" -- is no more than excess stormwater, mixed with the pesticides, road salt and gummy Valvoline of urban runoff. Yet we still call it a river, and we still walk our dogs along its banks, marveling at the tomato vines growing from cracks in the concrete and the mallards snatching worms from its turbid waters.

Nature dies hard.

Most of the River des Peres has been channelized -- straightened, deepened and lined with concrete to whoosh away the runoff of a 114-square-mile watershed that includes the city and 42 St. Louis County municipalities. On a before-and-after map, the original river looks like blue string art winding around the rational, straight, bold yellow line of the channel. The project was a tour de force, and as recently as 1988, it was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Yet sewage still seeps into the surface channel, mixing with industrial effluent, ammonia, lead, zinc, fertilizer, insecticides and puddles of water, mainly stagnant, that flow only when they overflow. The River des Peres' open stretches look like a set for a Mad Max movie, offering a last-resort habitat to a cast of rats, feral dogs and disease-laden mosquitoes.

Transformations have begun in rivers just as compromised, among them Boston's Muddy River, Kansas City's Brush Creek, the Los Angeles River, Denver's Platte River and Florida's Kissimmee River. They, too, were rank with sewage, strewn with garbage, channelized out of balance. Then, from the outrage of a few crazy waders and trash-gatherers, leadership emerged, and money started to trickle in, and the public took hope. Now trees and shrubs cool and soften the channels' edges; reeds and wetlands purify the water; meanders and cascades restore long-lost wildlife habitat. People hike, work and live along the banks, recognizing the rivers as anchors for their common life.

It's been a long time since St. Louis thought of the River des Peres as anything more than a dead brown drainage ditch. Still, if the Army Corps of Engineers can rip out the concrete of the Kissimmee River and rebuild its meanders and wetlands, surely we could at least run some clean water into our ditch? A "beautification study" was quietly commissioned last year by the Corps, the city, the county and the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD). Conceptual planning took longer than anybody expected (bureaucrats use words like "multijurisdictional" to explain the bogging-down) but now the consultant, Parsons HBA, has three alternatives to propose to the Rivers South Restoration Task Force (a loose array of more than 41 public and private partners spanning city and county agencies, mayors, neighborhood associations, environmentalists and business boosters).

The timing couldn't be better. The task force has two committees -- one for River des Peres "beautification," the other already breaking ground for a 43-acre RV park (with wetlands, observation decks, a conference center and a nature center) in the floodplain where the River des Peres meets the Mississippi. Trailnet is coordinating a greenway of landscaped hiking-and-biking trails to run along the River des Peres from the Mississippi to Forest Park, connecting other trails into a tree-lined network as far-reaching as our highways. Forest Park is re-creating the original meandering River des Peres watercourse as a way to restore the park's grandeur, biological health and logical use of space. The University City Green Center wants to clean up the stretch of River des Peres that runs through Ruth Park, slowing erosion caused by the water that rips into the woods from the concrete flue that crosses beneath McKnight Road and creating holding ponds and a purifying wetlands area. Even MSD, a utilitarian utility if ever there was one, has built $11 million of River des Peres "beautification" into its latest proposal.

Beautification. The word dances on everybody's lips, elbowing aside complicated phrases like "restoration of habitat" or "rehabilitation of the river." Beautification was the main goal handed to Parsons at the outset, and it meshes neatly with their cheapest option, plan C, in which trees and shrubs would be planted to screen the river from view and a few bridges would be spruced up. But Parsons also offered plans A and B, sketching possibilities for restoring natural habitat, ripping out the concrete and using living tree walls to stabilize the channel, terracing the slopes with native plants that could live underwater, and adding clean water and damming it in a series of pools and basins.

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