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Congress May Need to Settle Water Dispute

July 21, 2009 Environment 16 Comments

Here in the St. Louis region we are fortunate to have the Missouri & Mississippi Rivers as water sources.  Not all regions are as fortunate, just ask folks in Atlanta, GA:

A federal judge on Friday [7/17/09] ruled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been illegally reallocating water from Lake Lanier to meet metro Atlanta’s needs, but he’s not turning off the tap just yet.

The judge overseeing the high-stakes case wants a political solution and is sending the fight to Congress.

In the meantime, the current withdrawal levels from Lake Lanier will be allowed to stay the same – but not increase, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled. And if a political solution cannot be worked out in three years, the judge said, his order will take effect.

This means the metro area will not be allowed to use Lake Lanier as its primary source of water supply.

“Thus…only Gainesville and Buford will be allowed to withdraw water from the lake,” Magnuson said in a 97-page order. “The court recognizes that this is a draconian result. It is, however, the only result that recognizes how far the operation of the Buford [Dam] project has strayed from the original authorization.”

Magnuson, of St. Paul, Minn., was picked in 2007 to decide the almost two-decades-old tristate water wars case involving Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

His ruling handed the metro area a crushing legal defeat. The judge found that the Corps of Engineers should have obtained congressional approval before allowing Lake Lanier to be the metro area’s primary source of water supply. (source)

Three states, three cities, one lake.  Atlanta just cannot take all the water in their region leaving the others dry.

The City of St. Louis water system supplies water for much of our region well beyond the city limits.  Many of you in the suburbs may not like our public schools but you sure need our water.  Since the 1830s the City of St. Louis has operated a waterworks system (see history), long before farms surrounding the city became monotonous subdivisions, strip shopping centers and Wal-Marts.

The City of St. Louis Water Division maintains two water treatment plants that draw water from the area’s two main rivers. The Chain of Rocks Plant is located on the Mississippi River about eleven miles north of the center of the City and about five miles south of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The Howard Bend Treatment Facility is located on the Missouri River, 37 miles above the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and 15 miles west of the City limits. Combined, these two plants have the capacity to treat and distribute 380 million gallons of water per day (M.G.D.).

What if states up river from St. Louis wanted to dam and control the water that we have all long enjoyed?  What if a changing climate meant the mighty Mississippi became just a stream?  But what if the reverse happens and more rain brings more flooding?

Atlanta has sprawled beyond it’s natural resource limits.  Atlanta has greatly benefited from water from Lake Lanier.  Atlanta must change.  In the future we should expect to hear more on this topic from contributor Bryan Oekel, a native of the St. Louis region now living in the Atlanta area.

– Steve Patterson


A Year of Driving

A year ago today I bought my first post-stroke tank of gas. The 9 months prior to my stroke I did not have a car — my motorized transportation was a 49cc Honda Metropolitan scooter that got around 90 miles per gallon.  A year ago I felt guilty about going back to driving a car. I’m over the guilt although I want to, someday, go back to not having a car.

So the day I buy gas for the first time in nearly six months just happens to have been the day gas prices peaked in St. Louis.  I paid $3.979/gallon for basic unleaded. By December 30th I paid a low of $1.339/gallon – a 66% drop. I tracked each fuel purchase and my mpg on an application on my iPhone:

Cold winters and recent a/c use took a toll on my average MPG.  My last fill-up was on a return trip from Chicago – 70mph with a/c.  Pretty good numbers.

During the year I drove 7,200 miles which included a trip to Oklahoma and the recent one to Chicago.  Take out those two road trips and I drove about 5,500 miles around town.  Admittedly I have a big advantage of working from home.  But I also have a compact life shopping locally as well as combining trips. Even as the price of gas dropped I continued to conserve.

The above chart shows the price per gallon that I paid over the last year.  Yes, I’m a nerd by charting this but I’m a visual person.  As we seen the price per gallon has steadily increased in 2009.  It is still a long way from where it was a year ago – the climb up is much slower than the drop off.  But the prices from last summer will return at some point.  There will be a point in a year or two where $4/gallon seems low.

By the end of 2010 I hope to have another scooter — perhaps a hybrid or all-electric scooter.  Like before, I’ll go a couple of years having a car and a scooter before going to scooter-only.  This time I will be able to join Enterprise’s WeCar car-sharing program for those times when I need/want a car.

– Steve Patterson


St. Louis’ New Citygarden

Last week two blocks of St. Louis’ Gateway Mall were rededicated as Citygarden, a 2.9 acre garden sculpture park in downtown St. Louis.  The blocks, bounded by Chestnut, 8th, Market, and 10th, are part of the Gateway Mall project.  The Gateway Mall was declared done in 1993 when these two blocks got grass.  Yawn.  They are now far from boring.

Landscape Architect Warren Byrd of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects of Charlottesville, VA speaks at the opening.

I’m very impressed by the transformation of these two city blocks.  Of course, given that the Gateway Foundation spent $25-$30 million on the project not including the sculptures you’d expect it to be nice.  It is, in fact, nearly perfect.  As regular readers might expect, I do have a few criticisms of the design.  Before I get into the few flaws I need to offer more well-deserved praise.

It is nearly impossible to take a bad picture of the place.  Just point & shoot and you’ve got a stunning image.  On numerous visits I’ve seen people taking photo after photo.  I’d bet more pictures have been taken in these two blocks during the last week than the 15 years prior.  I saw people taking overall pictures, snapshots of friends, and of the many sculptures.  People were spotted holding hands and even kissing.  Intimacy in a public space is a sign of success.  Citygarden is an instant hit with the public.

The space is highly accessible.  My visits have all been in my wheelchair and I had no problem getting to all the various levels and spots within the space.

There was even a spot where I could go through this “spray plaza” on my wheelchair. At no point did I feel left out because I was in a wheelchair.  The able-bodied probably won’t notice but to me it was important.  There are steps in places but the ramps are just as interesting a route as those with steps — not an afterthought to comply with the ADA.

The spray fountain, above, will be popular day & night.

The lighting, by Randy Burkett Lighting Design of Webster Groves MO, is beautiful.  This is a good spot to mention the arrangement.  The land and improvements are owned by the City of St. Louis, the sculptures are the property of the Gateway Foundation.  The city pays for water & electric while the foundation pays for the rest of the maintenance costs.  The electric bill will be huge but so are the benefits.

The two blocks are well organized into many different spaces that invite exploration and numerous visits.  The walkway above runs east-west connecting the spaces.  More on this later when I get to the flaws.

The Terrace View Cafe, in the NE corner, should open soon. The cafe building was design by Studio Durham Architects of St. Louis.  The modern design is very appropriate given the context of garden & art.  The cafe will be open 7am to 7pm Monday-Thursday and open until 10pm Friday & Saturday.  Unfortunately, it will be closed on Sundays.  I could see the cafe becoming the hot Sunday brunch destination.  As a downtown resident it is often the weekends when I’m out with friends enjoying good food and the city.  But I understand how places need one day off.  Jurors will now have a great new place to enjoy their lunch breaks.

As I indicated earlier the park is two city blocks with just under 3 acres in total area.  Yet they only have 3 bike racks and those are all contained in one small area kinda hidden from view (off Chestnut).    With two blocks you have 8 edges total.  I’d expect one rack per edge — placed at each edge so bike riders arriving from all directions will see a rack as they arrive.  In the middle they could get away with a single rack on one side of 9th Street for a total of 7 racks.  The racks used are a good design — both attractive and functional.  Their location is not in the same block as the cafe.  So someone biking over for a quick breakfast or lunch is probably going to use a parking meter on 8th rather than these racks.  If we want to be a bike friendly city we must have bike parking distributed everywhere — not pushed off into a hidden corner.

The name is wrong too — Citygarden.  I like City & Garden being pushed together without a space but it should be CityGarden with a capital G rather than lowercase g.

The gardens fall into the praise category.  The trees are very mature and the plantings are varied.  I may like the plantings more than the sculpture.

9th Street was narrowed to two lanes at Market & Chestnut.  In the center they have room to drop off passengers.  The gardens where the street was narrowed collects rain water from the street and other non-pervious surfaces.  The cafe is said to have a green roof.

Detail of rain garden.
Detail of rain garden.

I try to get into the flaw mode and positives keep popping up.  Let’s return to the central walkway. As the Gateway Mall concept was extended east of Tucker there were several concepts.  The winning plan was to have four buildings on the north half of four blocks.  People mistakenly think the blocks were going to be cleared, free of all structures,  and somehow Gateway One got built between 7th & 8th.  Wrong, Gateway One was part of the plan.  But part of the idea was to walk down the center of these blocks.   Crossing 9th Street the designers did a great job at making this vision a reality by providing ADA ramps and special paving at the crosswalk.  But what about going east or west?

This is where the design fails in the biggest way — It doesn’t do anything to connect with adjacent blocks.  The block to the west contains Twain by Richard Serra.  Ideally 10th Street should have been narrowed as 9th was.  Granted, that could have only been done on the east side of the street at this point.  But once the Serra block is redone we’d need to remake the west edge of Citygarden.  Mid-block crossings at 8th & 10th would have gone a long way toward finally integrating these blocks.

The north side of the Terrace View Cafe facing Chestnut is the least appealing.  As you would expect, the building focuses inward on the garden.  This sidewalk is stark.  On-street parking is prohibited on this side of Chestnut in this block only.    I can see a no-parking section to allow access to the trash container and to facilitate deliveries but banning on-street parking on for the entire block is excessive. At this point none of the on-street parking around these two blocks are market as disabled only.  I’ll work with city officials to get a few designated as such.  As with bike parking, these should be distributed rather than concentrated.

The absence of greenery along the 800 block of Chestnut is very noticeable as well.  Street trees would have done wonders to make this sidewalk more pleasant for pedestrians.

In a city with so many blocks of dead open space it is refreshing to have two that are lively and intriguing.  Much work remains to fix the other blocks of the Gateway Mall (Broadway to 21st).

Check out the 11-minute time lapse video of the construction of Citygarden here.

– Steve Patterson


Controversial “Blairmont” Project to be Revealed Tonight

Tonight we expect politically connected developer Paul McKee, of McEagle Development, to publicly unveil the controversial development project nicknamed “Blairmont.”

The project got this name after one of the early holding companies used to acquire properties, Blairmont Associates LLC.

Here is a video that explains Blairmont:

Another source of info on Blairmont is a January 2007 RFT article.

Out of the controversy came an August 2007 bus tour of McKee’s properties.  Here is 5th Ward Alderman April Ford Griffin:

The next month the meetings continued.  Here is 19th Ward Alderman Marlene Davis:

I got involved by asking a question of Alderman April Ford Griffin.  Griffin is the chair of the Neighborhood Development committee at the Board of Aldermen.  She has a warped view of zoning.  Rather than have excellent zoning that codifies the community vision, she likes outdated zoning so developers must come to her.  The video starts out rough but gets better:

Congressman Clay talks about a hearing held at city hall with a reference to the 1970s Team Four plan that called for reducing services in parts of the city:


Here is a summary of the infamous Team Four plan:

This document contains the technical memorandum that was submitted to the Plan Commission by Team Four, Inc. in 1975. This memorandum proposed public policy guidelines and strategies for implementing the Draft Comprehensive Plan that was prepared by others. It offered a series of considerations concerning the process of adopting, staging, budgeting and ultimately implementing the Draft Comprehensive Plan. In addition, this document contains a preface dated 1976 that attempts to clean up any inconsistencies and or controversies surrounding the proposed implementation strategies and a bibliography or annotated listing of Technical Memoranda and Appendixes. Part I of this document focused on strategies for three generic area types: conservation, redevelopment, and depletion areas; and Part II of this document discussed major urban issues and their solutions.

Today “shrinking cities” are studied and various techniques are debated.  In the 70s in St. Louis the Team Four plan was seen as a racist plot to deny services to a minority population.  We know more today about how to adjust to shrinking populations.

Tonight we will see another, a huge heavily subsidized redevelopment plan.  Many are opposed simply based on the history of the project to date.  I for one plan to go with an open mind. I have reservations about both the developer and the political leadership.  Griffin’s view on the role of zoning doesn’t give me a lot of hope for what may be presented in pretty artist renderings actually being completed as promised.  A good framework of a zoning code can help ensure the promised vision develops into reality.

Tonight’s meeting starts at  7pm at Central Baptist Church Education Building 2843 Washington Ave (Google Map).  I’ll be there and will report on the presentation next week.


The Origins of the River des Peres

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).  It runs out to the Mississippi and seldom has much visible water.  Last night it was as full as I’ve seen it save for a few flood events.

Above: the River des Peres at Gravois on 5/19/2009
Above: the River des Peres at Gravois on 5/19/2009

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.  (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.  Even there the river is still buried beneath the open channel.  But what about the origins?  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).  Seriously.

Above: Lake Sherman in Overland Missouri
Above: Lake Sherman in Overland Missouri

This lake is not a naturally formed lake.  Here, I’ll let the historic marker explain:

Historical marker at Lake Sherwood
Historical marker at Lake Sherwood

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.  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.  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.  It connects the City of St. Louis to inner-ring suburbs.