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MSD launches 'Project Clear' - 23 years of clean water construction

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 26, 2013 - The Metropolitan Sewer District is officially kicking off its massive construction campaign to comply with a $4.7 billion consent decree. It's also launching a public engagement push to spotlight where the tax dollars are going.

MSD earlier this week kicked off “Project Clear,” an umbrella term used to describe projects being done to satisfy the mutli-billion settlement addressing wastewater overflows throughout the system serving St. Louis and St. Louis County. The projects are to be completed over a 23-year period.

Last year, St. Louis area voters easily approved a $945 million bond issue to pay for improvements mandated by the decree. MSD spokesman Lance LeComb said the projects include:

  • Constructing massive tunnels to increase stormwater capacity. When a storm comes along, LeComb said, MSD channels rainwater into those tunnels as possible. After a storm passes, MSD pumps that stormwater to treatment plants.
  • Bolstering "green infrastructure," which LeComb said includes efforts to allow water to percolate back into the ground by reopening green spaces or installing plant boxes.
  • Disconnecting residential downspouts from the sanitary sewer line. In St. Louis County, many homes have gutters and downspouts that lead to the public sewer system. That was the wrong thing to do, LeComb said, because the system in the county was not designed to handle both wastewater and stormwater. 

""Keep in mind sewer overflows and basement backups are caused by when too much rainwater gets into the system," LeComb said. "The water just has nowhere else to go. We can’t get them to the treatment plants quickly enough. So you have the tunnels that provide more capacity."
The other major aspect of Project Clear involves informing the public about what MSD is doing. LeComb said the engagement strategy includes an aggressive social media campaign, a website, public meetings about certain projects and informational material to MSD customers.

Communication is important, LeComb said, because most projects take place out of public view. But that doesn't mean such work is small scale or trivial: According to Project Clear’s website, the work MSD is undertaking is “equivalent to constructing 11 Busch Stadiums, rebuilding Interstate 64 nine times, or erecting seven new Mississippi River bridges."

“With Project Clear, the wording was deliberate,” LeComb said. “It’s about clear water, but it’s also about how we’re very clear to the public about our priorities. We’re clear in the transparency in how we’re going about doing this program. … I think the most important thing for most folks is ‘look, my rates are going up – where’s my money going?’ And it’s very difficult to show them that, because most of the work is being performed underground.

“Folks won’t see a bridge rising above the Mississippi,” he added, referring to construction on the new Mississippi River bridge. “So very little of this is going to happen above ground and we have to explain to folks where their money’s going.”

LeComb also said that certain projects – including disconnecting stormwater connections – will require “public participation for those programs to be a success.”

“Just in the terms of projects over the next couple of years, we’re going to be getting more and more into the neighborhoods,” LeComb said. “We don’t want the situation to be that we show up on their street with a construction crew and they’ve never heard of the work that we’re doing. And also around those projects, we need to communicate. Because some of this work could be going on for weeks or months in these neighborhoods. We need to make sure we’re being respectful of neighborhoods.”

More information about the effort can be found on Project Clear's website.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.