On July 21, I had the pleasure of speaking with Susan Mintz at the Green Center, an organization dedicated to fostering environmental stewardship through outreach and education of the public.

We spoke about River des Peres, of course.

First, she gave me a bit on the background of the River des Peres Watershed Coalition.

It formed just two and a half years ago to address the myriad watershed issues, chief of which is Combined Sewer Overflow (CSOs).

She told me how many people that live in the River’s headwaters headquarters (sorry, I couldn’t resist), also known as University City, wanted to see the signs of warning removed from their section of the River. They depict a silhouetted figure swimming, crossed out by a forbidding slash. The coalition began at the hands of a couple RDP dedicates, but by now the coalition has ballooned into at least 70 members, possibly as much or more than 80.

The first question on my mind was this: here is a river that has been utterly subverted and controlled by human engineering. Is there any hope for a full restoration of the watershed to its natural ecological state?

Her answer surprised me. “In a certain way, it has to be.” Worsening flooding, increased urban runoff, projected growth in inner ring suburbs within the RDP Watershed–all combine to create conditions unfavorable to the status quo of RDP.

Mintz reported what any St. Louisan already knows: the River is not a welcome neighbor. Many view it as a pitiful sewer that should have been fully routed underground. Still, Mintz notes a considerable change in tone with the help of the RDPWC’s outreach and education efforts. Residents once anything but optimistic about the River now attend the regular river clean-ups (“Stream Teams”) and are seeing progress. One 90-year old helper noted that local fisherman used to find the River to be stocked with sturgeon–a species of fish sensitive to pollution. If this observation was within the lifetime of some living today, can we not dedicate ourselves to restoring these conditions by the time this current generation reaches its golden years?

Another thing I was interested in was water quality. She told me that the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) “has jurisdiction from 10 feet from the center of the river to the edge.” MSD is a quasi-governmental agency–and it is one of the very few in the metro that has regional power. MSD oversees what is essentially the River des Peres watershed, which includes most of the City of St. Louis and 42 St. Louis County municipalities. Its formation in the 1950s was hailed as a regional innovation and success; Susan describes MSD as much like a municipality itself. She says that MSD is considered with controlling sewage, not enhancing the beauty and wildlife of the stream. Those areas of RDP adjacent to MSD areas are under the control of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

That latter group posted some H2O quality data on its website. It may be accessed below.

9003-river-des-peres-info

According to the report, the following standards apply to the River des Peres according to State Law:

Standards that apply
• All waterbodies in Missouri are protected by the general criteria (standards) contained in
Missouri’s Water Quality Standards (WQS), 10 CSR20-7.031(3).  These criteria are also called
narrative criteria, since they do not contain specific numerical limits.  For River des Peres,
points (3)(D) and (G) apply:
– Waters shall be free from substances or conditions in sufficient amounts to result in toxicity to
human, animal or aquatic life
– Waters shall be free from physical, chemical or hydrologic changes that would impair the
natural biological community.

The report goes on to say that low dissolved oxygen levels are the main problem with the river and are caused by urban non-point run-off. The Sierra Club is a bit more colorful in its description of the problems with River des Peres [Sierra Club]:

So much crud enters the stream that Scott Dye and Angel Kruzen (Missouri Water Sentinels coordinator) noted that sampling by the Water Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey had documented average fecal coliform counts of more than 78,000 bacterial colonies per 100 milliliters of water. The limit for safe contact by humans is 200 bacterial colonies.

Back to Susan.

She’s confident, at the very least, that things are getting better for the river and will continue to follow an upward trend with so much resident involvement. “It will happen, but it won’t be soon,” she remarks of a healthy river.

The best part of our interview was when she told me what residents have suggested to do with the River des Peres at various meetings. One group suggested painting, in blue, the original course of the river throughout the city. Every motorist passing over a tangle of blue stripes would eventually realize the presence of the onetime beautiful river. Many want signage along the River, explaining the various historical happenings along its banks, or a history of the River itself.

Others, including a group of intrepid Washington University students, want to utilize mapping technologies to overlay data onto spatial representations of the River.

Whatever the ultimate solution to RDP’s problems, Susan Mintz’s cautious optimism is promising in a town where skepticism and negativism reigns, especially in the face of the unlikely.

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