A History of River des Peres

by Angie Rose

The River des Peres, 2008

When I first moved to St. Louis in 2001, my husband and I spent that summer exploring the places he liked, and all the touristy and educational places that most locals remember from school field trips. On one of our many trips to investigate the custardy delights at Ted Drewes, I noticed a rank odor in the air. Not wanting to offend a native, I asked as delicately as possible “What in the world is that repulsive smell?” He said, “Oh, that. That’s the river.” I didn’t think the Mississippi could possibly stink so bad, but after further questioning I learned that this odor actually came from the much-maligned River des Peres. Many people in St. Louis ignore this waterway except as a driving landmark (it divides the city from the county pretty neatly) and a measure of rainfall, but its story is a classic tale of beauty, ruin…and hopefully redemption.

The St. Louis region is graced with many waterways, which first led to its founding as a trading post. It is also an important stopping point for many birds on the Mississippi Flyway, which is part of the longest migration route in our hemisphere. The Mississippi watershed is responsible for draining 40% of the continental United States. So what does the River des Peres (RDP, for brevity’s sake), which looks and smells like an open sewer most of the year, have to do with any of this?

Hard as it may be to tell now, des Peres was once a functioning and flowing river. Woodland Indians used the river from around 3000 to 300 BCE, and the Illiniwek tribes settled in the area in the 1600s. The first official European settlement of the St. Louis region actually occurred where the mouth of the RDP enters the Mississippi. Here, in 1700, two French Jesuit priests created a small settlement and also inspired a name for the river: River des Peres, or “river of the fathers.”

For some time after European settlement, the RDP continued as a lively, flowing little river which proved useful for trade and travel. This was mainly due to the initial slow growth of St. Louis. After the War of 1812, lead and fur trades led to a population boom of 5500 residents. But by 1830, St. Louis had reached a population of 16,649 and growing. At the time, there was no clearly defined plan for disposing of sewage, and it was common—and acceptable– to dump into the sinkholes and caves which dot the area. This inevitably caused foul problems when floods came.

A cholera epidemic in 1849, spurred on by the stagnant pools of water from ineffective sewage disposal, killed about 5000 people and pushed city leaders to come up with a real plan for waste removal.  It was officially decided that the Mississippi could take on whatever amount of nastiness that humans could produce, and policy demanded that sewage be placed in Old Man River.  But residents of the mansions in the Central West End found a closer place to dump their sewage: the RDP. Despite plans to create intercept sewers for the RDP which would funnel the waste to the Mississippi, the funds were never provided, and  rampant pollution of the smaller river continued.

By 1894, the pollution was so bad that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch  called the river “nothing less than a monster open sewer, poisoning the air with the most dangerous corruption and menace to health known, the corruption of sewage.”  When St. Louis hosted the World’s Fair in 1904, the part of the river which flowed through the fairgrounds was covered by planks so visitors would not be repulsed. Completely covering the river was considered the best option at  the time, but it would have been very expensive. A separate sewage system was set up for which the RDP was intended to be an emergency overflow area, but this Mill Creek Sewer System wasn’t built with the capacity it needed, and overflows were more common than intended.

The city was caught between a desire to keep the river functional, or at least not horrific, and the desire to keep the city growing towards the west. In the end, the population boom won, and the rivers continued to suffer as a consequence. Some proper channels, separate for storm and sewage, were built in 1910 between Lansdowne Avenue and the Mississippi, but overall not much was done to help the watershed and plenty was done to further complicate it.

People kept building houses, covering more and more of the good, absorbent ground with brick and concrete. With less area to soak into the ground, rain ran off instead, following its natural course into the RDP. There were floods of the RDP in 1897, 1905, 1912, and 1913. A huge rainstorm in 1915 caused the river the back up and flood, killing eleven people, 500,000 chickens, and destroying over a thousand homes. This was the wake-up call that the city leaders and the taxpayers needed.

Formal work on what became the River Des Peres Sewage and Drainage Works began in 1924 and ended in 1931. These improvements essentially turned the river into an official sewer, removing a natural but polluted river from our cityscape. The river itself was rerouted. For the first nine miles, the flow of the river was maneuvered underground into enormous pipes. Around Macklind Avenue, the sewage remains underground while the storm water flows into an open, concrete channel. Sewage and storm water were intended to be kept separate for the length of the river, though both would eventually  flow directly into the Mississippi.

Problems with the new RDP began rather quickly. Dependent on storm runoff for its channelized above-ground portion, it did not move along like it used to. The resulting standing water became a breeding ground for mosquitoes, leading to an outbreak of encephalitis in 1933 which killed 200 people. The channelized river, with no plant life along its banks, rose very quickly during storms and had to deal with backup from the Mississippi when that river was in flood.

Decrepit pipes continued to leak, and sewage overflow into the storm water system was still an uncontrollable problem. Mayors could not get funding to replace the pipes so they settled for prettying up the river cosmetically and cheaply. There is one case of a pilot being hired to fly over the river and dump a pine-oil deodorant into it so it wouldn’t stink so much.

Finally in 1954, the Metropolitan Sewer District was created and given the task of cleaning up the RDP and all its associated sewer systems. This was the first time that one agency would be handling both the city and county systems, and it was hoped that bureaucratic problems would be minimized. MSD built pump stations to route the sewage around, as well as primary treatment plants to remove the solid waste and incinerate it before letting the water into the Mississippi. At the time, this was all the law required, but in 1972 the Clean Water Act required the building of secondary treatment plants to remove even more pollutants.

MSD had quite a mess to work with when it took over the area’s sewer systems. About 300 miles of the system are made of brick and had been built before 1890. Overflow continues to be a problem even now, with heavy rains causing the sewage-carrying pipes to overflow and funnel their refuse directly into the RDP’s storm water system, and thereby into the Mississippi. These are called CSOs, combined sewer overflow events, and the EPA says a system should ideally have only about four of these events a year. In 1991, there were 51. The estimated repairs to patch the CSO problem will cost billions.

Another problem is that the river still floods. On September 14th 2008, the remains of Hurricane Ike rolled through St. Louis and caused a great deal of damage. Two people died in University City, swept away in flash flood waters as swollen creeks rose and sewers backed up. Some residents claimed this was MSD’s fault for not keeping the RDP clear of brush and trash, but MSD claims that there was so much rainfall in such a short time that even a perfectly clean river would have flooded. No matter who we can find to blame for these events, the homes and natural areas which are subjected to flood and sewage backups must deal with the unpleasant contamination and potentially harmful pathogens.

But it’s not a dead river. Besides being a breeding ground for mosquitoes, the water-holding sections of the channel offer habitat to ducks, geese, turtles, frogs, toads, and snakes. I’ve seen snowy egrets and herons, especially when the water is a bit low and there are muddy islands in the channel for them to stalk from.

There have been some efforts to turn the river into something more than a sewer. In 1972, the mayor of St. Louis, Alphonso Cervantes, had a plan that would divert storm water in such a way that a section between Lansdowne Avenue and Morganford Road would always have water in it. The idea was to create a marina and a line of city parks, enhancing the recreational opportunities in the area. His plan would have cost $14 million, but there was very little public support, and in fact many people found the idea very silly.

So what does the future hold for the RDP? Projects to clean up and return at least a semblance of nature to similarly plagued urban rivers have helped Boston’s Muddy River, Kansas City’s Brush Creek, the Los Angeles River, Denver’s Platte River, and Florida’s Kissimmee River. There are several organizations and projects in St. Louis interested in improving both the image and the reality of the RDP, and I’ve linked them below.

MSD is trying to gain public support for its Clean Rivers Healthy Communities program, which they estimate will cost around two billion dollars. The main improvement they hope to make is the elimination of the 200 overflow-prone areas within the system. They plan to build water storage tunnels to hold overflow, expand the wastewater treatment plant, and possibly install rain gardens or other green spaces in areas where there is now pavement. The main hurdle they face is selling this plan to the public, as it will inevitably raise sewer bills.

If you live in the River Des Peres watershed, you can do your part to slow the flow of storm water off your own property. Rain barrels installed under your downspouts will catch some of the water until you decide to release it, and can be used to water a garden or flowers. Consider removing excess concrete or asphalt from your property and replace it with plants, which will absorb the water instead of allowing it to run off. You can also plant a rain garden in areas of your lawn where rain tends to puddle. The plants used in these gardens thrive under wet conditions and can make better use of standing water than your typical lawn.

Even if you don’t live in the watershed area, you can visit some of the parks and trails along the route. The River Des Peres is a small river with a very big impact on St. Louis. From its beginning as a lovely meandering river,  to a neglected sewage carrier, to an engineering marvel of the 20th century, the river has always been important to the city and county. Let’s hope the future is brighter for this misunderstood and often ignored piece of St. Louis history.