Home » Environment » Recent Articles:

Rapid Urbanization of Dardenne Creek Watershed in St. Charles County Has Dramatically Increased Runoff

From a MoDOT camera, trucks in lower right used to close I-70
From a MoDOT camera, trucks in lower right used to close I-70

Record rainfall has resulted in flooding in the region, notably St. Charles County. On Sunday a major interstate highway was closed in both directions:

Both directions of Interstate 70 remain closed in St Charles County near Route 79 in St Peters due to rising flood waters from the Dardenne Creek. The eastbound lanes closed around noon Sunday, December 27 and the westbound lanes closed around 2:30 p.m.

It is expected that both the eastbound and westbound lanes will remain closed for Monday morning rush hour traffic.

Motorists who need to use eastbound I-70 in St Charles County can exit at Interstate 64 eastbound to Route 364 eastbound. Route 364 connects to Interstate 270 in St. Louis County and from there motorists can reconnect to Interstate 70. Westbound I-70 travelers will have to exit the highway at Route 94 in St Charles. They can take westbound Route 94 to westbound I-64 to connect back to I-70. (MoDOT)

The Dardenne Creek watershed flooded onto the interstate:

A watershed is an area of land where the runoff from rain or snow will ultimately drain to a particular stream, river, wetland or other body of water. There are nine major watersheds in the St. Louis region which drain into the Mississippi River and the Missouri River. Nested within these watersheds can be found smaller watersheds of creeks or streams and those segments of land which drain directly into the nine major watersheds. The following sections delineate the watersheds in the St. Louis region, discuss watersheds and watershed based natural resource planning and describe the actions the general public and local governments can take to improve water quality in their watersheds. (East-West Gateway Council of Governments)

While the record rainfall is big factor in the flooding, we can’t continue to ignore the role of urbanization plays. The better term, however, is suburbanization. Low density development with lots of rooftops, parking lots, and wide roads to connect it all. Coupled with dramatic population growth, too much of the county is paved over.

Here is the population of St. Charles County, per decade, with the percentage of growth from the previous.

  • 1910 24,695 0.9%
  • 1920 22,828 ?7.6%
  • 1930 24,354 6.7%
  • 1940 25,562 5.0%
  • 1950 29,834 16.7%
  • 1960 52,970 77.5%
  • 1970 92,954 75.5%
  • 1980 144,107 55.0%
  • 1990 212,907 47.7%
  • 2000 283,883 33.3%
  • 2010 360,485 27.0%

Below is the visual:

Graph made from figures on Wikipedia, click image to view page.
Graph made from figures on Wikipedia, click image to view page.

Flooding is an unintended consequence of this growth — all those parking lots add up! Had they planned development to be more compact and respectful of the watershed the current flooding wouldn’t be as extreme. Two geography students looked at this in a paper published in 2009: IMPACTS OF URBANIZATION ON SURFACE RUNOFF OF THE DARDENNE CREEK WATERSHED, ST. CHARLES COUNTY, MISSOURI.

Some quotes:

Urbanization, a common land use/land cover (LULC) change in suburban areas, has become a significant environmental concern in the United States. Urban areas are continuously increasing at an alarming rate (22.7 ha per hour in 1982–1997) as reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (USEPA, 2009). Although it provides enormous social and economic benefits, urbanization creates a significant amount of impervious surface by converting vast area of croplands, for- ests, grasslands, and wetlands into urban uses. The conversion alters natural hydro- logic processes and results in profound environmental consequences within a watershed, such as increasing the volume and rate of surface runoff and reducing ground water recharge (Carter, 1961; Andersen, 1970; Lazaro, 1990; Moscrip and Montgomery, 1997; Tang et al., 2005). Expanded impervious cover also reduces runoff lag time and increases the peak discharge of stream flow, resulting in larger and more frequent incidents of flooding (Field et al., 1982; Hall, 1984) and subse- quent increases in the scouring and incision of streams (Leopold, 1973; Booth, 1990; Doyle et al., 2000). Furthermore, the increase of impervious surface area degrades water quality of the stream, which is a major transporter and concentrator of pollutants (such as nutrients, heavy metals, and pesticides) in runoff and sedi- ments (Schueler, 1995). Percent impervious surface area in a watershed has been used as an important indicator of the ecological and environmental conditions of an aquatic system (Schueler, 1995; Arnold and Gibbons, 1996).

The Dardenne Creek watershed in St. Charles County, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, has experienced significant urban expansion in past decades. Events such as road overtopping in 2005 as a result of the highest flood level recorded since stream gages were installed in 1999 (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2007) have focused public attention on the need to understand how the pattern and magnitude of past LULC change have impacted runoff, and how future development and miti- gation might change watershed hydrology. The aim of the work reported here was to provide a quantitative assessment of the impact of past urbanization on surface runoff, and a baseline calibrated model for future efforts to assess potential hydro- logical impacts of new urban development and LULC change.

In the lower portion of the watershed, both forests and agricultural lands decreased from 1982 to 2003, although the rate of decrease became lower after 1987. Corresponding to the decrease of these two LULC classes, urbanization was apparent between 1982 and 2003. In 1982, urban areas only covered 7.4% of the area. After that, they increased at approximately 2.1% per year and became one of the dominant classes in 2003 (50.5%) (Figs. 3B and 3D). LULC change in the upper portion of the watershed was less dramatic (Figs. 3C and 3D) because of its remote location from the metropolitan area. Forest cover in the upper portion was higher than in the lower portion. Forest cover decreased 11.2% from 1982 to 1987 and tended to be stable in the following years. Different from the lower portion, agricultural lands increased from 1982 to 1991, a possible correspondence of deforestation. Agricultural lands decreased after 1991 at a much lower rate than that in the lower portion. Urbanization in the upper portion was limited. Urban areas were only 0.4% in 1982 and gradually increased to 10.9% in 2003. 

Results indicated that the watershed experienced rapid urbanization from 1982 to 2003. Urban areas increased from 3.4% in 1982 to 27.3% in 2003 in the whole watershed. Urbanization dominated in the lower portion of the watershed and gradually migrated to the upper watershed due to the proximity to the metropolitan area of the city of St. Louis. As a direct result of the urbanization from 1982 to 2003, the long-term surface runoff increased >70% for the whole watershed (>95% and >48% in the lower and upper portion of the watershed, respectively). The runoff increase was highly correlated with the percentage of urban areas (R2 > 0.90). Cou- pled with significant flooding events in 1993 and 2005, this work helps raise aware- ness of the actual scale of hydrologic impacts of urbanization in this particular watershed, and provides a simple calibrated tool for local planners to use in assess- ing potential impacts of future development and mitigation activities. More generally, such case studies provide important insight both into the scale of impact of complex land-use change and into approaches that can be used to evaluate, plan, and manage watersheds.

So what can be done about it now, isn’t it too late? No!

I’ve talked about Retrofitting Suburbia before. Architect Ellen Dunham-Jones suggests, in her TED talk, we can daylight creeks, rebuild wetlands, etc.  The solution is to literally urbanize some suburbanized areas, while returning others to rural, wetlands.

However, I seriously doubt the conservative electorate in St. Charles County is willing to do what is necessary. Flooding will likely continue.

— Steve Patterson


Readers: Underground Landfill Fire More Likely Than Not Will Reach Radioactive Waste Within a Year

None of us know for sure when, if ever, the underground chemical reaction (aka fire) at the Bridgeton Landfill will reach the radioactive waste in the adjacent West Lake Landfill. Hopefully it never will.

Bridgeton Landfill, September 2013
Bridgeton Landfill, September 2013

But until something is done — such as an underground concrete barrier — people in the vicinity have reasons to be concerned. For those unfamiliar, here’s some basics.

The Bridgeton Landfill, was originally a farm, then a quarry — which closed in 2005.

On Dec. 23, 2010, Bridgeton Landfill LLC reported to the MDNR that elevated temperatures had been detected in some gas extraction wells in the south quarry of the landfill. The facility began testing the landfill gas and found high levels of hydrogen and carbon monoxide and low levels of methane. All these conditions are indicative of a below-ground, high-temperature chemical reaction, also known as a “subsurface smoldering event” or “underground fire.”

Technically, this is not a “fire” with smoke and flames. Rather, it is a self-sustaining, high-temperature reaction that consumes waste underground, producing rapid “settlement” of the landfill’s surface. (KWMU: Confused about Bridgeton, West Lake landfills? Here’s what you should know — RECOMMENDED)

And radioactive waste at West Lake?

1973: Radioactive waste from the Manhattan project is dumped at the site. St. Louis was one place where uranium and radium were refined for the atomic bombs that were eventually dropped on Japan. A private company eventually bought the waste from the US government in the 1960s to extract minerals.

The waste was eventually crushed like rocks or dirt. The company later mixed the material with five parts of top soil to dilute it. 48,000 tons of contaminated soil was trucked to the landfill and presented as clean fill dirt for spreading on trash. All of this was done at a time when environmental regulation were lax compared with today. (KMOV: Bridgeton Landfill: How the current situation came to pass — RECOMMENDED)

In St. Louis, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works was one of many Manhattan Project sites in the U.S. and Canada.

There isn’t even agreement on the distance between the underground fire and the radioactive material. The corporation that owns the Bridgeton Landfill says 2,500 feet, the EPA & Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster say it is 1,000 feet away.   Last month St. Louis County released has a draft plan for an emergency response to a catastrophic event,

Further reading:

Here are the Sunday Poll results:

Q: Likelihood of Bridgeton Landfill’s underground fire (chemical reaction) reaching radioactive waste in the adjacent Westlake Landfill in a year?

  1. Unsure/No Answer 9 [29.03%]
  2. Very likely 8 [25.81%]
  3. Somewhat likely 6 [19.35%]
  4. Very unlikely 4 [12.9%]
  5. Somewhat unlikely 3 [9.68%]
  6. Neural 1 3.23% [3.23%]

The likely/unlikely ratio is 45.16%/25.58% — with 32.26% in the middle. I received an email about an upcoming town hall meeting tomoerrow:

Open to the public town hall meetings with:

State Representative Bill Otto

Mark Dietrich – St. Louis County Director of Emergency Planning

Dawn Chapman – concerned citizen, admin of Facebook: West Lake Landfill (18000 members) and co-founder of JustMomsSTL

Robbin Dailey – resident of Spanish Village


Thursday, Nov 12th 7-9 PM

Graphic Artists Banquet and Conference Center

105 Progress Parkway

Maryland Heights, MO  63043

Sponsored by Parkway Pattonville Democratic Township Club

— Steve Patterson



Sunday Poll: Likelihood of Landfill Fire Reaching Nearby Nuclear Waste?

November 8, 2015 Environment, Featured, St. Louis County Comments Off on Sunday Poll: Likelihood of Landfill Fire Reaching Nearby Nuclear Waste?
Please vote below
Please vote below

The two landfills in Bridgeton were the subject of a poll here over two years ago, but readers were apathetic about the issue. Lately, it has received national attention:

Underground landfill fires, or “smoldering events” as some officials call them, aren’t rare. What makes the fire at the landfill in Bridgeton, Mo., so unusual is that it’s less than a quarter of a mile from a large deposit of nuclear waste — with no barrier in its way. (Los Angeles Times)

So this seemed like a perfect time to revisit the issue, with a new poll question:

Of course, none of has no definitive way to know — this is a non-scientific way to judge how readers view the likelihood this may become a potentially dangerous regional issue.

Please vote above, share your thoughts below. Poll options are presented in random order, the poll closes at 8pm.

— Steve Patterson




The Volkswagen Group Wanted To Be The World’s Biggest Carmaker, Cheated In Attempting To Reach Goal

I’m fascinated by Volkswagen’s emissions-rigging scheme — writing software to make diesel cars perform differently while being tested vs. driven. Why would they do this?

To make sense of it we need to go back to 2007 for the planned introduction of new Volkswagen TDI engine for the 2008 model year:

Amid the looming hordes of European luxury automakers planning a North American compression-ignition invasion in the next couple years, humble Volkswagen has announced its plans to return the Jetta TDI to the diesel dogpile in the spring of 2008. Powered by a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, and either a six-speed manual or DSG automated manual transmission, the 2008 Jetta TDI will be cleared for sale in all fifty states.

Some of the earlier diesels to make it to our shores over the next few years will only be available in 45 states; California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont have all adopted stricter emissions regulations for diesels that bar some vehicles from entry. Using technology developed under the BlueTec cooperative formed by Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, the Jetta TDI will slip by these stricter regulations without resorting to a urea-based exhaust treatment, as many BlueTec labeled models will.

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are, along with particulate emissions (soot), the biggest hurdles facing diesels in the U.S. Most BlueTec vehicles will control NOx by injecting a urea-based solution called AdBlue into the exhaust system upstream of a catalytic converter that specifically targets NOx. In that catalytic converter, the ammonia in the urea reacts with the NOx in the exhaust gas and neutralizes it into nitrogen and water.

Volkswagen’s Jetta TDI will manage without a urea injection system by using a NOx-storage catalyst. Like the particulate filters in place on this car as well as other diesels, this catalyst is basically a trap that temporarily holds the offensive emissions. Periodically, the engine will switch to an air-fuel mixture that will burn off the material in the traps.

(Car & Driver February 2007)

Delayed a year, this new 2.0 TDI didn’t debut until the 2009 model year. The previous 1.9 TDI engine was sluggish and didn’t meet newer emissions standards — Volkswagen had no 4-cylindar diesel engine for U.S. models during the 2007 & 2008 model years.

From 2005 to 2006, the Jetta TDI is powered by a 1.9-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel engine (TDI stands for Turbo Direct Injection) good for 100 horsepower, but a healthy 177 pounds-feet of torque. Remember, torque is a rotational force required to get a car moving, so the more torque an engine has, the quicker it can move a car either from a standing stop or when overtaking slower traffic. 2009 and newer Jettas feature an all-new 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine with VW’s “clean diesel” technology. The clean diesel features particulate filters and other devices for removing diesel soot and order from the exhaust, as well as a system for reducing emissions. The 2.0-liter TDI produces 140 horsepower and whopping 236 pounds-feet of torque. While the 1.9-liter engine can best be described as peppy, the 2.0-liter TDI is down right quick. Rocketing out of a tollbooth or merging onto the freeway is a snap for the 2.0-liter TDI, which feels more like the GTI’s 200-horsepower turbocharged gas engine than a powerplant designed for maximum mileage. (AutoTrader August 2011)

The new 2.0 TDI engine was able to meet stricter worldwide emissions standards without using an urea injection to clean the exhaust — brilliant engineering, or so we thought. Every other diesel required urea injection, which had to be refilled about every 10,000 miles. When Mercedes BlueTEC diesels run out of urea you can start it only 20 more times before refilling it (TheCarConnection).

Over the years since the new 2.0 TDI engine was introduced the automotive press raved about it, and consumers bought more and more. After all, the performance was outstanding and the real world MPG exceeded EPA estimates. As we’ve learned, their urea injection-free diesel didn’t meet emissions standards. Their “CleanDiesel” wasn’t clean at all.

Visitors to the 2011 St. Louis Auto Show check out a Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI
Visitors to the 2011 St. Louis Auto Show check out a Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI

Sales of their diesels broke records:

VW Group of America has had great success with diesels in the US recently. Vee-Dub and Audi sold 105,899 diesel-equipped models in 2013. It was the first time the group ever sold over 100,000 diesels in a year, and they accounted for 24 percent of sales. (AutoBlog)

At the Chicago Auto Show in February we saw the newest SportWagen TDI — now a Golf — with a new TDI engine.

The 2016 Golf SportWagen TDI om display at the Chicago Auto Show. The new TDI engine in this 2016 model is equipped with urea injection to clean the exhaust.
The 2016 Golf SportWagen TDI om display at the Chicago Auto Show. The new TDI engine in this 2016 model is equipped with urea injection to clean the exhaust. However, VW has decided to pull all diesels from US showrooms for 2016.

Volkswagen had a stated goal of becoming the biggest car maker in the world, and for the first six months of 2015 they were:

Volkswagen (VLKAF) sold 5.04 million vehicles from January to June, a slight dip from a year earlier. That compares to 5.02 million sold by Toyota (TM) over the same period. Group sales dropped 1.5% due to a weaker performance by its Toyota and Daihatsu brands. (CNN/Money)

Many were expecting a close race between Toyota and the Volkswagen Group for top honors for 2015, now Toyota will locket retain the crown as Volkswagen deals with the fallout. My friends who own these polluting diesels are furious they were deceived. I’m furious millions of these cars have been polluting the environment while billed as eco-friendly clean cars.

— Steve Patterson




Readers: We’ll Definitely Be Affected By Climate Change Within The Next 20 Years

September 2, 2015 Environment, Sunday Poll 1 Comment

Over half of those who voted in the most recent Sunday Poll got it correct — we’ll definitely be affected by Climate Change. How can I be so sure? It was a trick question — we’re already being effected by it! First, the poll results:

Q: Think you will be personally affected by Climate Change within the next 20 years?

  1. Definitely 20 [58.82%]
  2. Possibly 6 [17.65%]
  3. Doubtful 5 [14.71%]
  4. Certainly not 2 [5.88%]
  5. Maybe, maybe not 1 [2.94%]
  6. Unsure/No Answer 0 [0%]

Far too many people see headlines taking about what will happen by the end of the century and think they won’t be effected — few of us will be alive in the year 2100 — I certainly won’t be. But that view ignores the fact the changes have already begun and will continue unless the world takes big steps to slow it. Different regions will be effected differently, but the global food supply is the great equalizer.

September 2014:

The atmospheric conditions associated with the unprecedented drought currently afflicting California are “very likely” linked to human-caused climate change, Stanford scientists write in a new research paper. (Stanford: Causes of California drought linked to climate change, Stanford scientists say)

California is a big supplier of foods to the rest of the country — so we’ll feel changes in St. Louis: either in our wallet or lack of availability. From August 18th:

The UC Davis team used computer models and the latest estimates of surface water availability from state and federal water projects and local water districts. They forecast several drought-related impacts in the state’s major agricultural regions for the current growing season, including:

  • The direct costs of drought to agriculture will be $1.84 billion for 2015. The total impact to all economic sectors is an estimated $2.74 billion, compared with $2.2 billion in 2014. The state’s farmers and ranchers currently receive more than $46 billion annually in gross revenues, a small fraction of California’s $1.9 trillion-a-year economy.
  • The loss of about 10,100 seasonal jobs directly related to farm production, compared with the researchers’ 2014 drought estimate of 7,500 jobs. When considering the spillover effects of the farm losses on all other economic sectors, the employment impact of the 2015 drought more than doubles to 21,000 lost jobs.
  • Surface water shortages will reach nearly 8.7 million acre-feet, which will be offset mostly by increased groundwater pumping of 6 million acre-feet.
  • Net water shortages of 2.7 million acre-feet will cause roughly 542,000 acres to be idled — 114,000 more acres than the researchers’ 2014 drought estimate. Most idled land is in the Tulare Basin.
  • The effects of continued drought through 2017 (assuming continued 2014 water supplies) will likely be 6 percent worse than in 2015, with the net water shortage increasing to 2.9 million acre-feet a year. Gradual decline in groundwater pumping capacity and water elevations will add to the incremental costs of a prolonged drought. (UC Davis: Drought costs California agriculture $1.84B and 10,100 jobs in 2015)

But foods are grown many places:

Warmer temperatures may make many crops grow more quickly, but warmer temperatures could also reduce yields. Crops tend to grow faster in warmer conditions. However, for some crops (such as grains), faster growth reduces the amount of time that seeds have to grow and mature. [1] This can reduce yields (i.e., the amount of crop produced from a given amount of land).

For any particular crop, the effect of increased temperature will depend on the crop’s optimal temperature for growth and reproduction. [1] In some areas, warming may benefit the types of crops that are typically planted there. However, if warming exceeds a crop’s optimum temperature, yields can decline. (EPA: Agriculture and Food Supply)

It’s foolish to think we won’t be affected in the next two decades.

Here the Midwest:

The Midwest is home to roughly 66 million Americans and includes the cities of Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, among others. Most of the region consists of flat prairie that is farmed for corn, soybean, and wheat, or is used for grazing livestock. Summers in the Midwest are hot and humid, and winters are cold, since the region is far from the temperature-moderating effect of the oceans. [1]

In the Midwest, average annual temperatures increased over the last several decades. Heat waves are becoming more frequent and cold periods are becoming rarer. Snow and ice are arriving later in the fall and starting to melt earlier in the spring. Heavy downpours now occur twice as frequently as they did a century ago.[1] These trends are likely to continue under future climate change: average summer temperatures are projected to increase by 3°F over the next few decades and could increase by over 10°F by the end of this century. This range would make summers in Illinois and Michigan feel like those in present-day Texas and Oklahoma, respectively. [1] http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/impacts-adaptation/midwest.html

In St. Louis our air quality will deteriorate further.


— Steve Patterson