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:
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.
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.
Even without cost estimates, the committee is leery of such dramatic improvements. "Parsons' other options involved small dams," says Tim Caldwell, Corps project manager for the study, with a frown. "The committee decided we didn't want any ponded areas because of the health risks. And with "habitat,' you're just restoring it for the birds and bunnies." The clear consensus, he says, is to screen and beautify, adding a few common-use recreation areas and bike trails, making an urban greenway along the edges without altering the channel itself. Anything else would be radical, enormously expensive and far too complicated.
We'll just pretty up the corpse.
Behind MSD headquarters at Hampton Avenue and I-44, Frank Janson, the engineer who manages the district's infrastructure, brakes his truck down a short, steep hill and drives into the dry channel of the River des Peres. Up ahead is a double-arched tunnel, its twin black holes ending St. Louis' famous 29-foot sewers (biggest in the world -- he's sure of it). "Every couple years, someone drives a car in here and sets it on fire," remarks Janson, who'd rather measure hydrostatic pressure than the turbulence of the human psyche. Stepping into the echoey tunnel, he describes how sewage slurps along these pipes and, ideally, falls through a grate and travels below the surface to the treatment center, leaving only stormwater in the open channel. A funky, sweetish, tingly green smell wafts around him, a whiff of methane curling its edges. "See how fresh it is?" Janson asks proudly. "When I was a kid, you could smell the River des Peres for miles."
He's worked for MSD for 35 years, and he knows the River des Peres' bodily quirks as intimately as those of an ex-spouse. Back out in the dry channel, he scuffs one of the buckling squares of concrete that lift to reveal the sanitary-sewage (household-waste) pipe. "Some stuff perking up here," he mutters, nodding toward the greenish puddle. Then he scans the concrete-sprayed sides of the channel where groundwater pours through small weepholes, algae scum forming a mossy beard below each mouth. Small, rusty pipes poke out of the steep walls (it's so rocky in this stretch, they excavated straight down to save money) and drip air-conditioning condensate into the channel. "Anybody who discharges directly into here has to have a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit," he explains. "It's self-monitoring, but if somebody else reports a problem, they're in big troub-- " He stops short. "Is that a turtle over there?"
Sure enough, there's a turtle floating in the largest puddle, the top of his shell a dry, crackled brown, the lower edges green and slimy. The oily moat around him shines silver, reflecting a nearby beer can. "In the summer, this stuff'll really cook and ferment," remarks Jansen, "and it'll get septic on you. It's polluted, but you got life in there -- algae, low-life invertebrates. I think that turtle's expired," he adds abruptly. "His shell's really dry, and he hasn't moved in a long time."
Turning away from the turtle, Janson shifts scale, pointing up at one of the "giant pumps we hardly ever use. St. Louis is laid out in a geological saddle, two hills and a broad area in between. The idea is to catch all the sanitary sewage and pump it up over the hill into the Bissell water-treatment system, leaving this one dry so they can drag all the grit out." He scuffs again. "Here's grit right here. We should clean more often, but it's expensive to turn on those big pumps." The antithesis of the wasteful bureaucrat, he talks like a coupon-clipping housewife, worrying aloud about how much electricity MSD uses and how they try to wait for off-peak hours.
Climbing back into his truck, Janson accelerates up out of the channel and heads north to find the "natural" stretches of the River des Peres. You can catch glimpses of its old life in Ruth Park, the last true oak-hickory forest in the area, where green herons and Louisiana water thrushes fly above the river and tangled nets of Japanese honeysuckle drape its banks. But even there, stormwater rushes in from a culvert, eroding the banks, and pours off the nearby golf course through mulch piles, bringing leachate that fouls the water. Just south of the woods, rusted shopping carts sink like shipwrecks, and there's so much debris it snagged the T-shirted body of a dead teenage boy in 1991. The next year a 54-year-old man, hoping to die, hoisted himself from his wheelchair and rolled himself over the overpass wall into the channel. That September, the river yielded the body of 12-year-old James "Tony" Trumbo, who drowned while playing near his Vernon Avenue home and washed downriver to Hampton. Last January, a 25-week fetus was spotted floating in the ditch near Sublette Avenue.
The River des Peres is our shame.
It's also, judging by the hysteria in old newspaper stories, our enemy: a concrete monster that starts life wild in North County, running past people's backyards, eating their wading pools and barbecue pits and luring their children into its filth before, at the back of University City's Heman Park, going underground. "When you drive along Vernon Avenue, you're driving on top of what used to be the channel," explains Janson, noting the Twilight Zone effect of passing between buildings that don't face the street. At Skinker Boulevard, where the city sewer ends, he stops to show how engineers scooped out a giant funnel to direct flow underground. Hurtling through a giant culvert under Delmar, the water then travels belowground through Forest Park and resurfaces at Macklind Avenue, open to the sky for the rest of its 14-mile run to the Mississippi.
Driving south on Hampton, Janson follows the course of the "river" after it shoots past Arsenal, crosses under Watson Road and winds through St. Louis Hills. Behind Willmore Park, a gravel access road runs along the channel, back where huge shiny crows bruise the sky and scrub trees grow twisted from the rock. The water rests heavy here, its surface as thick and bronze-green as the bottom of an old beer bottle. Out on one of the islands, a snowy egret plants her yellow feet in the matted pondwort and waits, immobile. Soon the rough fish that live in these overwarm waters will swim openmouthed near the water's murky surface, gulping for the oxygen sucked low by heat and algae. But before she can swoop down and nab one, there's a loose flap of wings, and a great blue heron lands beside her, extending his S-curved neck toward the water in a flash of indigo, an iridescence taffeta can only hope to imitate.
Willmore Park is one of the city health department's "monthlies" -- areas they regularly inspect for Rattus norvegicus, the brown, foot-long Norway rats that carry bubonic plague. "They have a particularly musky odor," confides Mark Ritter, vector-control supervisor for the city health department. "They can't see well, so they follow the scent of each other's urine, and they stick to those trails like Vietcong." Every time Ritter sees MSD digging to do repairs, he braces for complaints from the surrounding neighborhood. Rats like the old loose-jointed transverse pipes in people's yards, where pockets of last night's flushed spaghetti collect in the gaps like a free buffet on a cruise line. They burrow along these pockets and set up housekeeping, and if a family unit is displaced, it simply invades the next burrow, starting a wave of resettlement.
"The surface of the River des Peres is a water source for them," continues Ritter, wincing at the memory of a nearby resident with Alzheimer's disease who thought she'd tamed squirrels to eat out of her hand. "They will go into the storm sewer, hit the sanitary level and travel from there. But the new pump stations and pipes helped, and as MSD replaces the old sewer lines, the rats' habitat shrinks -- which is a huge advantage to us," he finishes, pausing for drama, "because West Nile encephalitis is on its way."
West Nile, a close cousin to St. Louis encephalitis. Heading south to escape talk of plague, you enter the floodland: the Carondelet-Lemay stretch, where the Great Flood of 1993 caused so much backwash that the River des Peres ran in the opposite direction, engulfing houses, forcing sewage into basements and spewing untreated wastewater straight into the Mississippi for weeks. MSD spent the next seven years -- and $110 million -- building a huge interceptor tunnel and computerized pump stations that sense and regulate water flow.
Next will come two more strips of floodwall, planned to run from I-55 to Virginia Avenue and dutifully devised by the Army Corps of Engineers because, even though we all know better by now, St. Louis is too densely built to try less artificial methods. "The other way is to get everybody off the floodplain and let it flood," says Patrick O'Donnell, project manager with the Corps. "But you've got the Astaris plant, which used to be Solutia, and the Nordyne plant -- very, very valuable factories where lots of people are employed, and Parque Carondelet apartments and everyone's homes ..."
Last July, the management of that Solutia plant requested "relief" from Missouri's clean-water regulations so they could continue releasing 120-degree effluent into the River des Peres. Their rationale? That the water quality in that stretch of the channel was already so degraded, it couldn't support life anyway. Solutia's consultants did find mallard ducks, Canada geese, aquatic worms and several schools of yearling shiners. But the fish were not deemed "recreationally important," and there was so little biodiversity (0.6-0.7 on an index where 4.0 is healthy) that heating the water with steaming effluent was predicted to have "no real impact." Ken Midkiff, program director of the Sierra Club's Ozark Chapter, listened drop-jawed while the staff of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) agreed, recommending that Solutia be allowed to continue the discharge unless and until the water's overall quality could be improved.
DNR focuses most of its resources on saving streams whose condition is less "extreme." By default, then, the caretaker of the River des Peres is MSD, an agency hamstrung by public budgets, federal requirements and water-treatment costs that go up exponentially with each percentage point of additional purification. MSD monitors industrial discharge but can't prevent it, no more than it can dispel the trash and toxins people's carelessness sends into the channel. "Styrofoam doesn't biodegrade," notes Janson, looking sourly at a jumbo coffee cup caught on jagged rock, "and Charmin is the worst. That Mr. Whipple oughtta be ..." He restrains himself, seasoned by years of diplomatic confrontations with citizens who understand nothing of sewage.
St. Louis' outmoded, overburdened infrastructure makes escaping through the sewers of 19th-century Paris look like a jog in the park. Many of our sewers are made of crumbling brick, 311 miles of them built before 1890, and 1,781 miles are "combined sewers" that carry both stormwater and sanitary sewage -- and overflow in a flash. Heavy rains swell the volume of wastewater, and pressure builds until the water spills out of its prescribed path and, bypassing the water-treatment plant, spews into creeks and rivers.
Using computer modeling, MSD estimates that at least 51 combined sewer overflow (CSO) "events" took place along the River des Peres last year alone. Ideally, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's CSO Control Policy, a system would have no more than four overflows a year. That would signal compliance with the Clean Water Act -- and with wastewater-treatment systems in place, the EPA is finally ready to focus on the CSO implications of the Act. So far, MSD has satisfied the feds by using what are called "best-management practices" to maximize the cleanliness of the old system. Anything more would cost billions, warns Janson -- and because the federal grants that helped cities make infrastructure improvements in the 1970s and '80s have dried up, the EPA can't very well issue "unfunded mandates." But they sure would like it if cities whittled down those CSO events. According to the Clean Water Act, every body of water must be swimmable, fishable and drinkable unless the state can show why that's impossible. The River des Peres was always in such bad shape that Missouri's DNR never even bothered to formally excuse it -- so, by law, we're all supposed to be able to dive into the channel and take a big gulp.
What would we swallow? The EPA isn't sure; spokesman Dale Armstrong says the agency leaves testing and monitoring to the DNR. But the chief of DNR's water-pollution section, Kurt Riebling, says, "Nah, we don't monitor River des Peres. Actually there is not much of a river there; it's more of a storm drain. I think there are still some sewer lines underneath. There's not a whole lot I know about it." Nor does DNR monitor Deer Creek or Gravois Creek -- tributaries that flow into the River des Peres -- adds Riebling, because nobody's supposed to be discharging anything into them. What if there's an illegal discharge or a spill? "We rely a lot on the public to let us know."
John Madras, chief of the planning section for Riebling's program, says the River des Peres is classified among the waters of Missouri and that it is bound by the requirements of the Clean Water Act. Madras suggests MSD as a source of water-quality data, yet the closest Janson comes to statistics is an invitation to "name your chemical. You can find damn near anything in there. In an industrial town like St. Louis, you might even find radioactive stuff." Nobody's monitoring any of this? "River des Peres does not have public access, so it's not a public hazard," he explains. "You shouldn't be there in the first place."
Ah, but there are quite a few St. Louisans -- including Madras -- who grew up playing in the River des Peres. If the beautification committee fears that cleaning and landscaping the river would make its uncertain waters more tempting, they're forgetting the lure of the sordid, the half-hidden, the parental taboo. There isn't a single private fence anywhere along the River des Peres that can't be penetrated by a 5-year-old, reported Noel Fehr, the landscape architect coordinating the Parsons HBA study, after the study. As for water quality, MSD's long-term CSO-control plan indicates that in the lower River des Peres, down where Hampton Avenue turns into Germania Street and the channel bursts wide open, wet weather sends ammonia and lead levels sky-high, exceeding acute-toxicity standards. Asked whether those levels have increased over the past 5 or 10 years, Janson says, "I don't think you can speculate on that, because of the possible multiple sources. It's there, it's ambient and it's not desirable."
Later he apologizes for seeming evasive, explaining that people expect MSD to be responsible for water quality when that's not MSD's purview at all. You can get more water-quality data from Stream Team volunteer Catherine Rankovic, who took the River des Peres because nobody else would. Her Team 1340 conducts biomonitoring once a year between the Lansdowne Avenue and Gravois Street bridges, although the stats are too preliminary for publication. "You are not going to have the stream healing itself anytime soon," she summarizes. "People have to help it. But it is not as dead as people think."
The River des Peres ribboned across this land thousands of years before the birth of sewage and urban runoff. In the third epoch of the Ice Age, a mile-high wall of ice and crushed rock wedged itself against what's now downtown St. Louis, blocking the Mississippi River before melting into nearby channels. Swollen with glacial water, the River des Peres scoured out a floodplain wide enough to puzzle geologists for centuries. By the end of the Ice Age, it coursed fast and clear over rock already a few hundred million years old, offering cool water to the hairy mastodons, mammoths, camels, horses and giant ground sloths that trod its soft banks. After another few thousand years, the first human beings glided over the River des Peres and its tributaries, using logs hollowed by fire to travel what's now the entire metro area. Tools recently excavated along the old riverbed -- a grooved ax and stone celt -- date back to the Late Archaic Early Woodland Period (3000-300 BCE).
Prehistory's forays opened the way for a mound-building civilization as large and sophisticated as medieval London's. But with the fall of Cahokia in the 1300s, the entire area abruptly emptied, and the tall-grass prairie around the River des Peres remained unsettled until the 1600s, when Illiniwek tribes, driven south by the Iroquois, canoed in just ahead of the French fur trappers. In 1700, two French Jesuits, Father Gabriel Marest and Father François Pinet, built the area's first official settlement: a mission at the mouth of what became known as the River des Peres, or "River of the Fathers." The Illiniwek Nation's Kaskaskia and Tamaroa Indians joined them, impressing the Jesuits with their ingenious jokes, and the village grew to an amicable assortment of about 2,400 Indians and 100 Frenchmen before it dissolved in 1703. Enraged Sioux were accusing the villagers of encroaching on their land, so the entire settlement hurriedly moved downriver to what is now Kaskaskia.
Sixty-one years later, Auguste Chouteau landed just north of the old River des Peres site and staked out the village of St. Louis.
The River des Peres posed environmental problems from the start, because people insisted on settling near its swampy mouth, where malaria-carrying mosquitoes clouded the air and feces contaminated the stagnant pools. Cramped with the dysentery they called "bloody flux," the settlers must have felt plagued indeed. Before "civilization" set in, humans had scattered their waste on land, the soil had absorbed its nutrients and the water had remained clean. Now people lived close together and dumped their waste into the water, letting it dilute their stench at a comfortable remove.
In 1842, city engineer Henry Kayser designated St. Louis' natural limestone sinkholes and caves as further repositories for the fast-mounting waste. But the sinkholes soon turned yellow-green, and the caves clogged with debris. When the storms of 1848 deluged the city with 17 inches of rainfall, the wastewater tumbled forth, creating a huge open sewer the citizenry dubbed Kayser Lake. It became a Petri dish for the 1849 cholera epidemic, and when more than 5,000 died the first year, the city decided to drain both the "lake" (repository for the Biddle Street sewer) and Chouteau's Pond (repository for the Poplar Street sewer). The new solution? Dump that waste directly into the Mississippi, which another city engineer proudly christened the "Great Trunk Sewer" of St. Louis.
The River des Peres, however, was not yet a sewer; it was still the "wild and uncontrollable prairie stream" that had carved the meadows, valleys, wetlands and bluffs of Forest Park. As the park's planners civilized that topography for the 1876 opening, they tamed the very idea of the River des Peres, holding a champagne party by its "golden waters" and describing it as "a romantic little stream."
The little stream soon burbled with the contents of porcelain chamber pots, dumped daily from the sewerless mansions of the Central West End. Alarmed, city engineers drew up a plan in 1887 for interceptor sewers to take wastewater straight to the Mississippi, ending such rude discharges into the River des Peres. In an act that would set the pattern for the next century, the city government approved the conceptual plan but not the expenditures necessary to make it work. Feces, urine and gray dishwater continued to flow into the River des Peres, and in 1894, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch branded it "a monster open sewer, poisoning the air" with its "thick gummy exhalation."
By 1901, St. Louisans were so ashamed of the stream they'd polluted that they buried it alive beneath Forest Park. The original plan was to restore the park to its wild, natural state after the 1904 World's Fair. But by then, engineers had enclosed nearly a mile of the stream in a wooden box and sliced off its bends and meanders, nearly halving its length. (The truncated channel also sped the water flow, compounding flood problems downriver.) Meanwhile, those novel World's Fair flush toilets (5 cents to use one, 5 cents more if you wanted soap and water afterward) had dumped more ick into the river. George E. Kessler, chief architect of the Fair, pronounced the River des Peres "now nothing more than a great sewer" and advised that St. Louis permanently treat it as such.
Then he left town.
In 1910, Mayor Frederick Kreismann announced a dramatic plan to enclose the River des Peres -- if it was a sewer, let it be hidden -- but the project cost $4 million, so the city abandoned it. People continued to build right up to the river's edge, sealing the earth with asphalt and concrete. The rainwater that used to soak into the ground streamed into the river, which flooded frequently in retaliation. By 1913, at least three children had drowned in its foul waters. The next mayor, Henry Kiel, urged the city to fork over $10 million and fix the River des Peres' problems permanently, implementing changes outlined in engineer Horner's 1916 report. Again, the city demurred.
Finally, in 1923, St. Louis passed the largest municipal-bond issue in U.S. history, $87.4 million, financing Kiel Auditorium, electric streetlights ... and the channelization of River des Peres. Excavations began during the heavy spring rains of April 1924, with the river's banks sliding like a potter's slurry. A June flash flood drowned one of the partners in the contracting company. It took until summer of 1926 for crews to blast their way through the rock just south of Forest Park and, heading toward Skinker, reroute the river into horseshoe-shaped pipes. Soon the park's meandering river was completely "entombed" in two underground concrete sewer tubes, leaving only swampy lagoons at the surface.
The new River des Peres, straight as an arrow and definitely more sewer than river, was finished in 1933. Five million cubic yards of earth and 400,000 cubic yards of rock and shale had been gouged from the land, replaced by poured concrete, hand-placed stones and truckloads of riprap rock. The "riffles" of fast, purifying water were gone, as were the crooks and bends that slowed the water, preventing erosion. There were no more sandy or rocky bottoms to accommodate the breeding quirks of different fish, no more fluctuations in current and depth to create various habitats; no trees to shade the water, so heat didn't suck all the oxygen out of it; no soft edge of vegetation to filter impurities.
The city was distracted from its concrete triumph by a new disaster: the nerve-attacking disease that would bear its name. Open drainage ditches -- what the once-flowing River des Peres had just become -- bred mosquitoes that caused St. Louis encephalitis by biting infected birds and then biting humans. The 1933 outbreak affected at least 1,095 people, killing about 200 and damaging the central nervous systems of the rest. It returned in 1937 and again in 1939, and the cases roughly followed the course of the new River des Peres.
Meanwhile, the sanitary sewer kept overflowing. In 1948, the mayor recommended intercepting its flow with a new pipe, but the thrifty city chose half-measures instead. (One day, for example, a pilot flew his Piper Cub over the channel and dusted it with pine-oil deodorant.) Finally, in 1954, the new MSD was charged with cleaning up what was now the environmental equivalent of a million messy diapers. They stopped the slaughterhouses from dumping offal straight into the sewers; they built pump stations to reroute sewage and treatment plants to remove and incinerate solids before the water rejoined the Mississippi.
MSD finished its new primary-treatment plants in 1972 -- the year Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which demanded secondary treatment. Back at the drawing board, engineers designed tanks where bacteria would eat microscopic pollutants, removing them from the wastewater along with the larger "floatables" and "sinkables" now extracted mechanically. Odors from the tanks turned Lemay into a sulfurous hell for the next decade, until engineers learned to bubble the water slowly and trap its noxious fumes.
By then, Janson was overseeing the boring of a multimillion-dollar interceptor tunnel under Skinker to "keep the crap out of the lower River des Peres" and prevent sewage from seeping into Forest Park's ponds. Pleased with the results, he walks to a padlocked wire cage on the east side of Forest Park and points to steps descending into the sewer. For a brief way it's sunlit, and the cascading overflow looks like a waterfall. Back at ground level, though, the pond a few yards south is pale green, coated like the tongue of a sick man. "Too much nitrogen and phosphorus," Janson murmurs, adding that it's the excess nutrients from detergents, fertilizers and feces that cause these algae blooms, choking off air and light from everything below the surface.
Stagnant ponds helped prod the restoration of Forest Park. John Hoal, the South African landscape architect who coordinated the master plan, says his team began by layering transparent sheets of paper that mapped terrain, land use, the River des Peres' original course and the changes over the years. "The river was essentially erased," he says, "yet what was left was the topography of a river course. It became so obvious that for the park to have meaning as a natural system that related to the built infrastructure, we needed to bring back the thing that created it."
Hoal wants to see the River des Peres functioning as a grand connecting artery, a watercourse St. Louis can be proud of. More playful visionaries want it dammed for fishing, swimming and boating. The Sierra Club wants the River des Peres declared "impaired" and cleaned up promptly. Social idealists see its rebirth as a way to ease disparities between the rich, who live surrounded by beauty, and the poor, who wind up in trashy floodplains. Urban planners think a new River des Peres could revitalize the city and inner suburbs, redistributing population more sustainably. Developers want it flowing so institutions and corporate headquarters will build alongside its parkway. Pragmatists want it hidden behind a screen of trees and bushes.
And MSD just wants to limit the number of CSO events before the feds insist.
Their new plan involves everything from separating sanitary and stormwater sewage at strategic points to a "complete drawdown of the Bissell Point Interceptor Tunnel," flushing settled materials straight to the pump station. Still, it's the decidedly unsexy street sweeping and litter control MSD expects to make the difference. The color-keyed map of the current sweet-sweeping schedule looks like Joseph's dream coat, with Pine Lawn and Northwoods not sweeping at all, Brentwood sweeping twice a week, Clayton once a week, University City once every 45 days, and so on, and so on. MSD proposes turning the whole map pink, meaning a weekly sweeping for everybody, plus extra sweepings in the filthiest spots. The economics haven't quite been worked out yet. "This is boilerplate," says Janson. "Sweeping's the answer. When you ask the question -- "Who will pay for it?' -- that's when the whole room goes silent.
"I've sat in meetings for years hearing people say, "Let's put in dams and go fishin'!'" he groans. ""Let's make it a river again,' "Let's bring in natural water' -- well, the natural water ain't there anymore. We're doing a good job of getting the sewage out, but even in the pristine areas up north, where it's still a natural creek, the urban runoff leaves it a mess, water-quality-wise. We can probably beautify it somewhat, but unless Mayor Harmon wants to sweep twice a week, prohibit fertilizers and pesticides and publicly flog people for dropping oil in ..."
Janson's spent too much time doing hospice for the current River des Peres to feel anything but cynical about its future. And when you ask the Corps experts just how much habitat restoration and sustainable landscaping can be done, they burst out laughing. "Not much," says Caldwell. "Top bank, you can. From there landward, you can do about anything you want to."
Noel Fehr of Parsons HBA quietly disagrees. According to Fehr and his team, it's perfectly possible to terrace the sides of the channel with native species that can survive underwater. One of their scenarios suggests putting in low-water dams and create a flowing urban waterway, stabilized by living tree walls whose tenacious roots hold the soil in place. Parsons has done it before; Fehr offers pictures showing how to backfill with soil behind the tree walls. Seedlings then sprout from the sides of the cut trees and the soil between them, weaving a wall tighter than a Macedonian phalanx.
Janson grudgingly concedes that the plan's possible, but he's not about to be lulled into pipe dreams about such ridiculously expensive propositions as restoring -- or even fencing or enclosing -- the River des Peres. "There's a lot of wonderful things," he says. "A cure for AIDS, or cancer ... it all depends on your priorities. Would you rather throw $100 million into a sewage system or the public schools? My project's not always the best project."
The goal for the River des Peres, adds Janson, is a brainteaser: "Make it visually appealing, but at the same time discourage contact: Look, but don't touch." There's good reason for the admonition: As long as St. Louis has those combined sewers, and even separate sewers that seep and leak, the fecal-coliform bacteria that live in our digestive tracts will spill into the channel every time it rains hard. When the U.S. Geological Survey tested metropolitan St. Louis streams in 1997-98, the River des Peres had a fecal-coliform count of 85,000 -- compared with 1,300 in rural Williams Creek.
Everybody touts Kansas City's transformation of "Flush Creek" to the restored Brush Creek, where pumps send clear water through a series of dammed pools filled with fountains and paddleboats and edged by cultural institutions, corporate headquarters, pedestrians and happy commercial developers. But fecal-coliform bacteria still plague Brush Creek; in fact, a few unwitting tourists splashed around and got so sick they sued. Now, when the city holds rubber-duck races, participants are not allowed to place their ducks in the water themselves or to pick them out after the race.
What fun is water recreation when you can't even touch your duck?
Forest Park designer Hoal ran into a similar problem when he looked at raising the original River des Peres; without the ability to control the runoff upstream, water quality couldn't be guaranteed safe for "whole body contact." The planners settled on a "flowing, riverlike water system" that will mimic the original river's route, avoiding "straight lines and unnatural or tight curves" and flowing down cascades, over spillways and through restored wetlands. Then Hoal inserted a sentence into the master plan: "Long-term consideration should be given to reestablishing the water links between Forest Park and the rest of the region via the River des Peres." He's convinced that "it's very pragmatic to deal with River des Peres on the other side of Forest Park, where it's in a concrete channel, and make it more like a natural river." It's just not the sort of project you can think about in a straight line: It can't be assigned to one jurisdiction or one agency, it's not fast or cheap and it shouldn't be made simple.
"Water attracts people; it's as simple as that," concludes Hoal. "You can direct people to certain places; you don't have to allow them willy-nilly to get into it. But ruling out dams because we're worried about health risks -- that is accepting that we will continue to have polluted water in the middle of our cities. To premise the whole restructuring of the River des Peres on the idea that it will always be polluted seems to me very problematic. What you are doing is designing an open-air sewage system the length of the city and planting some plants to screen it off."
Thirty-five years ago, Rick Rosen -- now board president for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and an urban-planning expert -- carefully clipped an essay from a 1965 Post-Dispatch in which Joseph R. Passonneau, then dean of the Washington University School of Architecture, urging St. Louisans to invest in amenities of their common life, sketched a River des Peres water basin created through damming of the channel at the Mississippi. "What a great idea," thought Rosen, amazed it hadn't been done already. But seven years later, when Mayor Alfonso J. Cervantes proposed using inflatable dams to create a basin for small sailboats and paddleboats, the idea fizzled into River des Peres Yacht Club T-shirts and parade floats. Once something's been shat upon, St. Louisans refuse to look again.
"Somehow," observes Rosen, "St. Louis got to be a place where ideas and visions didn't grab people; they didn't have confidence in them, they kind of made fun of them." Kelly Butler knows this all too well: Two years ago, when she organized neighborhood groups into a River des Peres Beautification Alliance, everybody laughed at the Charlie Brown saplings they planted along the channel. They kept going, planting shrubs and flowers, putting up white corner fences and Victorian neighborhood signs at the intersections, even offering to landscape in front of the car wash at Alabama Street. "The owner was afraid that if he let us landscape it, we'd eventually own it," sighs Butler. "People have a lot of fears." (Just ask St. Louis Hills, where the Home Owners Association rejected a proposed bike trail along the River des Peres because they thought it would tempt drug dealers and muggers.)
Fear is universal, but it's cast out by strong leadership. When LA planners began their push to restore the Los Angeles River, they had poet Lewis MacAdams paint his hands and face green and then slither like a rattlesnake and howl like a coyote, summoning the banished spirits of the wilderness. In Seattle, Archbishop Alex Brunett wrote a somber pastoral letter about the Columbia River, urging the community to reclaim the river as a "sacramental commons." In Denver, the chair of the Platte River Greenway Foundation was appointed to the Water Board, and the Rocky Mountain News announced, "Yesterday's impossibilities suddenly seem less impossible." Boston's so pumped that city government is planning to spend $70 million restoring the Muddy River, and the Boston parks-and-recreation commissioner believes his generation will be remembered for it.
St. Louis 2004 gave the River des Peres Beautification Alliance $1,900 to hang "Imagine the possibilities" banners along the channel's edge.
Ah, well. It's a start. And imagination will indeed play the crucial role. But so far, all people are being told to imagine is the beautification of a sewage channel. The real river's long gone, the channel's public stewards are resigned to its degradation and only the hired planners see much hope for a compromise: not the old, wild river but a clear, healthy urban waterway that could revitalize neighborhoods and businesses, make room for nature to breathe and redeem the shame-laden relationship between St. Louis and its waste.
The River des Peres has come a long way since Frank Janson first signed on with MSD, back when the "floatables" and "sinkables" of household waste flowed into the Mississippi River unchecked, overflows weren't controlled and the channel's fumes gagged surrounding neighborhoods. When Janson compiled a history of the River des Peres in 1988, he says, the pattern came clear: "You never got a civic or public improvement without a crisis. It always had to get rotten bad before people would do something new, something to their benefit."
Janson doesn't criticize caution; he's as conservative as the city itself, he says. But if there were funds available, and the public will to support the project? Prodded at length, he finally admits he'd love to see the River des Peres enhanced.
"Make it look like a stream," he says, warming to the topic. "Make a community parkway out of the 10 miles of open channel. A lot of towns have done a lot of things. Sometimes I'm accused of being a pooh-pooh guy, but I really like the idea. It'd be something to be proud of -- you'd take people for a drive along "the parkway'; you'd hear "River des Peres' on the traffic report and get a pleasant image. It'd be subtle, but over time people would begin to recognize it as an attraction, not a detriment, and you'd get a different perception."
Back in the channel, behind MSD headquarters, he squints again at the puddle where he first saw the turtle. "Yeah, he is alive," he says in surprise. "There's his eyes flickin' around." Long pause. "If you call that livin'."