Water quality

Is it safe? What's going on? Your questions answered.

Meramec River post-flood, untreated wastewater no longer pumped direct into river

As 2015 drew to a close, Saint Louisans watched helplessly as rainfall inundated the region, cresting rivers at 42.58 feet, just shy of 1993’s historic flood level. Included in the destruction was MSD’s Fenton Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP), resulting in direct flow of untreated wastewater to the Meramec River. Two months later, wastewater is being partially treated, and work to bring full treatment on-line continues at the plant.

As weather warms, many of us eagerly anticipate returning to the river for all the wonderful recreation the Meramec offers. Understandably, many friends of OSC are contacting our office with questions and uncertainties regarding the river. In this post, we aim to answer your questions and, because this situation is still evolving, provide links for further information. We will continue to share important developments as they occur.

Is the Meramec River safe to explore at this time?

Press release advisories as well as signs posted along the Meramec River’s final stretch between Fenton and the Mississippi River advise the public to NOT to enter the water.  MSD states, “If anyone should come into contact with the river in this area, it is recommended they immediately and thoroughly wash with soap and water.” Weekly water quality tests indicate unsafe levels of E. coli, and MSD will continue testing until those measurements return to safe levels. Accordingly, as long as advisories remain in effect and warning signs are posted, Open Space Council does NOT endorse recreation or river cleanup along this particular stretch of the Meramec River.

Should we be worried about drinking water?

No. Drinking water is treated by Missouri American Water in a process completely separate from wastewater treatment. According to Missouri American Water and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the affected Meramec plant continues to achieve water quality standards above state and federal levels. Multiple daily test results confirm that E. coli is not present in drinking water produced by Missouri American Water. In fact, as a member of the Partnership for Safe Water, a voluntary initiative developed by the EPA and other water organizations, Missouri American’s water quality testing and treatment must consistently surpass EPA regulatory requirements. Fewer than one percent of U.S. water utilities have achieved this water quality honor. Ann Dettmer, External Affairs Manager, explains that at an Arnold public hearing in February, it was agreed that Missouri American Water would have their water quality tests independently verified by the DNR. Tom Bastian, DNR Director of Communications confirms, stating, “Regular testing is required to be done. Department staff are also taking regular samples at the Missouri American Water plant until the Fenton plant is operational and meeting effluent limits, in order to ensure that the drinking water quality is not adversely affected. Results for drinking water testing continue to be in compliance with all testing parameters.” Analysis results are posted to Missouri American Water’s website.

For how long was untreated sewage pumped into the Meramec River?

Untreated sewage was diverted to nearby rivers and streams between December 28, 2015 and February 12, 2016. Primary treatment, which was restored on the latter date, involves the removal of solids from the wastewater. The next step of a fully functioning treatment process, and which remains to be reached, is called secondary treatment; this step utilizes biological processes to remove pollutants from the wastewater. A third step, in effect at the Fenton WWTP from April 1 through October 31, involves disinfection of the wastewater with ultra violet light. Tom Bastian explains, “[DNR] department staff have conducted several walkthroughs at the plant to observe the progress being made. It is noteworthy to mention that the amount being discharged is less than 0.5% of the total flow amount of the Meramec River, meaning that any discharge into the river is highly diluted.”

When will MSD’s Fenton WWTP return to full function?

MSD estimates that full treatment of wastewater will be brought back on-line in April. Other repairs to ensure backup systems and restore other non-critical functions of the plant will take longer. As of February 28, MSD reports that contractors have worked over 10,300 hours to restore operations, with much of that work related to the plant’s electrical systems. Thus far – and as an example of the extensive nature of the repairs that are needed – approximately 73,000 feet (or approximately 14 miles) of electrical wiring has been replaced. Press releases and videos documenting progress are available via MSD’s blog and YouTube channel.

What does untreated wastewater do to the river?

After the Canadian town of Canmore experienced a WWTP shutdown in 2007, Water Matters — an Alberta-based environmental group working toward watershed protection — compiled a holistic evaluation of sewage’s effects on freshwater ecosystems. The article highlights the many incremental impacts observed in freshwater systems.

For an immediate response to Fenton’s WWTP shutdown, the DNR and MSD’s primary areas of focus include dissolved oxygen, pH, and E. coli.

  • Dissolved Oxygen: within range
    Sewage effluent promotes large populations of aerobic bacteria, which use oxygen as they decompose organic matter, potentially stripping this resource from other water species, such as fish. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) explains, “Dissolved oxygen in surface water is controlled by temperature and has both a seasonal and a daily cycle. Cold water can hold more dissolved oxygen than warm water.” To support abundant fish populations, water must contain >9.0 ppm (8.99 mg/L) dissolved oxygen.

  • pH: within range
    According to USGS, “Not only does the pH of a stream effect organisms living in the water, a changing pH in a stream can be an indicator of increasing pollution or some other environmental factor.” As a point of reference, 7 = “pure” water, 8 = sea water, 9 = hand soap. US natural water falls between 6.5 and 8.5, with 7.0 being neutral.

  • E. coli: FAILS
    USGS states, “This bacteria is a preferred indicator for freshwater recreation and its presence provides direct evidence of fecal contamination from warm-blooded animals. Although usually harmless, E. coli can cause illnesses such as meningitis, septicemia, urinary tract, and intestinal infections. A recently discovered strain of E. coli (E. coli 0157:H7) can cause severe disease and may be fatal in small children and the elderly.” As a point of reference, DNR stipulates that E. coli levels in the Meramec may not exceed 126 cfu/100mL for whole body contact (category A) or 1,134 cfu/100mL for secondary contact recreation such as boating, fishing and other non-swimming activities.

E.coli levels in the Meramec should return to normal once the Fenton plant is fully treating wastewater. MSD will continue monitoring activities on the Meramec until E. coli levels return to normal and the recreation advisory is removed.

MSD conveys that the Fenton WWTP shutdown is not an immediate threat to human health or the environment, stating that clarity of the river above and below Fenton remain similar, effluent flow constitutes a small volume of total river flow (0.5%), and the shutdown has not caused a fish kill or otherwise impacted wildlife.

Is there any ongoing research to study long-term impacts to the ecosystem?

Dr. Steve Herrington, Missouri Director of Freshwater Conservation with The Nature Conservancy communicated with OSC that the US Fish & Wildlife service is monitoring mussels and that the Missouri Department of Conservation is monitoring fish and mussels to ensure that they are not being detrimentally affected by the sewage.

Will Paddle for a Cause or Operation Clean Stream be impacted?

Both events are on, and we hope you’ll join us! We care deeply about the safety of our rivers, watersheds AND our volunteers and supporters, so we will, of course, turn to experts regarding water safety leading up to each of these important OSC events. Because each takes place along stretches of river well up-stream from the Fenton WWTP, both events are continuing as planned:

  • Paddle for a Cause takes place June 5, 2016. This excursion explores portions of the beautiful Meramec, Courtois and Huzzah rivers.
  • Operation Clean Stream returns on August 27-28, 2016. After the recent floods, your help is all the more important! Our efforts span 500 miles of Missouri waterways, so there’s more than enough area to make your impact.

In closing…

Washington University Professor Bob Criss, PhD reminds us, “In times past, St Louis didn’t treat wastewater at all. Instead, raw sewage was directly poured into our rivers via sewer outfalls. We’ve come a long way since then, and humans and the environment are better off.” Local organizations, including MSD, are working diligently to ensure the health of our beloved river. As those efforts continue and as the weather warms, we encourage you to heed any safety notices. The primary area impacted by Fenton’s WWTP shutdown extends from Fenton, downstream to the Mississippi River – roughly 12-15 miles of the Meramec River’s impressive 229-mile waterway. Be safe. Do good. Enjoy nature.

– Reported by Lysa Young-Bates