Swimming the River des Peres: Daredevil Affects EPA Policy on St. Louis River

Sep 8, 2011 at 4:00 am
Last month, the United States Environmental Protection Agency issued a ruling calling on hundreds of waterways in Missouri to conform to federal Clean Water Act standards, making them safe for swimming and recreation.

One of those water bodies — the River des Peres — struck us as particularly unusual. Most St. Louisans tend to think of the River des Peres as something of an open sewer. And, to some degree, they're right, especially during periods of heavy rain, when sewage can mix in with storm water flowing into the river.

That said, does anyone really swim in the River Des Peres?

"Yes," says John DeLashmit, water-quality manager for Region 7 of the EPA, which includes Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska.

"We had a public comment session on the river, and people told us that they've observed people jumping off a trestle and into the water during floods," DeLashmit says. "Then someone else pointed out a YouTube video of a man with a mohawk — who some might call a 'brave young' and other might call something else — swimming in the River des Peres. So right there we had frank evidence that people do, on occasion, swim in the river."

In its report on water quality in Missouri, the EPA linked to a video of a guy named Chris Kline swimming the river. We've posted it on our website for your viewing pleasure. (We particularly like how Kline has a Heineken in hand before his plunge. We imagine that such a feat requires a bit of liquid courage.)

Prior to the EPA ruling on the River des Peres last month, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources had claimed that the waterway was safe for boating and other recreation that doesn't include a person being fully submerged in the water. The EPA disagreed, arguing that the lower half of the river (roughly from Gravois Avenue to the Mississippi River) should be made clean enough for swimming.

DeLashmit tells Daily RFT that just because people perceive a waterway as too polluted for swimming doesn't mean the EPA will accept that principle.

"When you look back at it, this is the kind situation that prompted the Clean Water Act," says DeLashmit. "Back before that legislation, a lot of people thought Lake Erie was too polluted for recreation."

The EPA plans to work with the Missouri DNR to help reach the clean water goals.