Crapper’s Legacy

5 06 2012

WPA laborers completed the River Des Peres project during the Great Depression.

MSD belatedly cleans up its act and dumps the cost on ratepayers

The River Des Peres near Chippewa Avenue.

By Will Delaney

The current dilemma faced by St. Louisans can be traced back to Thomas Crapper, the English plumber who popularized the flush toilet in the late 19th Century.

Crapper, of course, could never have predicted the environmental or economic consequences that indoor plumbing would have on modern society, but voters here certainly will have to grapple with the issue when they go to the polls today to consider passage of the $945 million Metropolitan Sewer District bond issue.

If passed, the bonds will finance the first four years of a $4.7 billion, 23-year project that will radically reduce the amount of raw sewage that pours into the Mississippi River.

The next time property taxpayers relieve themselves they may wish to contemplate the fecal history that led to this exorbitantly expensive proposition. The core of this sordid tale is a dirty little secret that involves MSD’s non-compliance with the federal Clean Water Act since the inception of the law in 1972.  To be fair, however, MSD inherited the mess. By the time the district was founded in 1954, some city sewers were already a century old, while burgeoning suburban St. Louis County had more than 500 unregulated sewage systems.

The main disposal problem stems from the antiquated infrastructure that mixes storm water drainage and sewage disposal during and after heavy rainfall.  The trouble dates back to the pre-Civil War era, when the city first began relying on the river as a convenient means of dealing with sanitation issues. The civic answer then amounted to simply allowing the river to carry the waste downstream. The situation hasn’t really changed much.

Most of the metropolitan area’s industrial and residential sewage flowed untreated into the Mississippi until 1970, when the Bissell Point and Lemay treatment plants came online. Initially, the primary treatment facilities only handled 50 percent of the waste. Moreover, heavy rainfall still allows the sewage to circumvent treatment and flow directly into the Mississippi.

Proposition Y on Tuesday’s ballot finally seeks to end the longstanding pollution problem. But MSD did not take this step of its own volition. The Environmental Protection Agency along with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment sued the district in federal court in 2007 for violations of the Clean Water Act, thus forcing the agency to either shit or get off the pot. MSD now claims that the ballot proposal will ease the pain of anticipated rate hikes, which will drastically increase monthly sewer bills with or without the passage of the bond issue.

The last time St. Louisans faced a sewer-related initiative of this scale was in 1923, when voters approved $11 million in bonds dedicated to burying the northern reaches of the River Des Peres and converting the remaining half of the river into a combined sewage and storm sewer, which empties into the Mississippi in Lemay. The 18-mile-long course is considered one of the civil engineering marvels of the 20th Century.

The reshaping of River Des Peres was spurred by two factors. In August 1915, torrential rains, the remnants of a Gulf hurricane, caused a flood that killed 12 people and inundated sections of Forest Park under 10 feet of water. To alleviate future flooding, the river was literally buried. The mammoth undertaking, which was engineered by hydrologist W.W. Horner, employed thousands of laborers and took more than a decade to complete. The resulting manmade, underground stream now flows through Forest Park, exiting south of Saint Louis University High School on Oakland Avenue.  Ultimately, the subterranean part of the river extended for several miles, from Skinker Boulevard and Vernon Avenue in University City to Macklind and Manchester Avenues in the city, where the river again surfaces.

The other impetus for taming River Des Peres had to do with disease prevention.

By the late 1880s, residents of the tony Central West End had begun turning the tributary into an open sewer, despite the horrid memories of the cholera epidemic of 1849, which killed 5,000 people. Cholera is transmitted by contaminated drinking water. The majority of the victims of the plague were children.

Later, two outbreaks of encephalitis during the Great Depression of the 1930s centered along the banks of the River Des Peres, killing more than 300 people. The strain of the disease, which was carried by mosquitoes hatched in the river’s turgid waters, was appropriately named St. Louis encephalitis.

During the same era, the last 7.5 miles of river bank was lined with stone as part of a massive, five-year Works Progress Administration project. WPA laborers endured blistering summer heat and numbing winter cold to build the masonry channel. More than 20 landslides slowed the completion. Workers were paid 40 cents an hour.

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One response

7 03 2014
Stink Fistula

In the meantime they seem hellbent on poisoning any and all wildlife by completely drowning the riversides with potent pesticides and herbicides , including the half-dozen or so homeless people who take haven under the Chippewa Bridge over the River Des Peres.

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