When most of us think of the River des Peres we think of the (mostly) waterless ditch that runs near St. Louis’ limits, just South of I-44 (map).Â It runs out to the Mississippi and seldom has much visible water.Â Last night it was as full as I’ve seen it save for a few flood events.
Of course all waterways have both a history and a point of origin and the River des Peres is no exception:
Perhaps the first sewage the River des Peres received was from St. Louis’ Central West End chamberpots. In response to the volume of waste, the city wrote an ordinance in 1887 “to prevent discharge of sewerage or offensive matter of any kind into the River des Peres.” If the city had funded the ordinance, then a separate sewer system would have been built and the River des Peres’ history might have taken a different course. Instead, the government of St. Louis began a trend that has plagued the river for more than a century: St. Louis would support ideas to protect the River des Peres as a sewer more than as a river.
As St. Louis grew westward, so did the expanses of pavement. With less open ground to soak up the rains, the River swelled with runoff. The River des Peres flooded in 1897, 1905, 1912, and 1913. The flood of 1915 killed 11 people and forced 1025 families from their homes. Flooding – not sewage – prompted St. Louisans to action. Mayor Henry W. Kiel called for a hydrologic study, which was completed by W.W. Horner and presented to the St. Louis Board of Public Service in 1916. St. Louis voters chose to implement Horner’s recommendations, which cost $11 million.
The project was called the River des Peres Sewerage and Drainage Works, and it took nine years to complete (from 1924 to 1933). Workers re-graded and paved the River’s banks and straightened its bends. Elsewhere the River was directed below ground to join with the sewer. The engineering innovations brought national recognition for Horner (who was also the project engineer). Scientific American and Engineering News-Record featured the marvelous new River des Peres. In 1988, the American Society of Civil Engineers recognized the project as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.Â (Source: River des Peres Watershed Coalition)
So our once natural waterway became an engineered & buried system until it reached the open air channel we all know.Â Even there the river is still buried beneath the open channel.Â But what about the origins?Â For that we need to travel to the St. Louis suburb of Overland, MO to a subdivision of mostly ranch homes built around a lake (map).Â Seriously.
This lake is not a naturally formed lake.Â Here, I’ll let the historic marker explain:
It is just over 6.5 miles from this spring fed lake to where the River des Peres opens up near I-44 — in a straight line shot.Â As creeks & rivers do the River des Peres took a much longer winding course. It is open in places and covered in others.
All water runs downhill, every bit of land is in a watershed.Â How we treat these watersheds are important — especially to those downstream.
Back to the River des Peres Watershed Coalition:
Unfortunately, channelizing and straightening the River channel has had undesirable side effects. The River now travels much faster and the banks are much steeper. What this means is greater erosion of the banks, which threatens trees and structures and increases the sediment in the River. Repairing riverbanks and structures along the River des Peres is challenging and expensive. Many St. Louis area residents have a very negative perception of the River des Peres, viewing it as nothing more than an open sewer. Some don’t even realize that it’s a river. This unfavorable attitude toward the River allows some to mistreat it, by dumping or allowing pollutants and debris into the River. There are some very important reasons to take better care of the River des Peres. The open stretches of the River des Peres are still home to wildlife such as fish, turtles, dragonflies, and birds. The microbes in the River perform the valuable task of helping to purify the water. The River also provides aesthetic value in areas like Ruth Park Woods in University City, where it flows in a more natural state. And the River des Peres – and all the pollutants and waste it carries – empties into the Mississippi River, which is home to hundreds of species of aquatic life, including the federally endangered pallid sturgeon.
The River des Peres is at the same time part of the region’s sewer infrastructure as well as part of our natural landscape.Â It connects the City of St. Louis to inner-ring suburbs.