Green infrastructure gaining ground in Schenley Park

Green infrastructure isn’t taking Pittsburgh by storm yet, but it is gaining momentum and ground — most recently, six acres in Schenley Park, which includes the sloping lawn between Beacon and Bartlett streets near Panther Hollow Road.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy initiated a project to turn that lawn into a rain-absorbing meadow, with huge French drains above it as the first line of defense in sequestering run-off.

At a news conference at the Bartlett Street picnic grove Thursday morning, Meg Cheever, CEO of the conservancy, said the meadow will soak up 600,000 gallons of water each year.

Grass being little better than pavement in absorbing water on a slope, it has been replaced by plants with thirstier root systems to prevent rain from cascading off Beacon and down the slope to Bartlett on its way into Panther Hollow, the city’s lowest watershed.

Conservancy staff joined representatives of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority and public officials to tout the project as part of a trend in public-private partners taking action to keep rain out of municipal pipes.

“This is what we have to do” as part of the bigger picture, said Jeanne Clark, Alcosan’s public information officer. ”If we stop the water at the top, we protect the Panther Hollow watershed and tributaries to the Mon.“

The bigger picture is a 2008 consent decree that 83 municipalities signed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to eliminate overflows that send sewage into our rivers. The overall price tag is roughly $3.6 billion.

The price tag for the work so far in Schenley Park is $750,000, $412,000 of which is an EPA grant to Alcosan, which contributed $157,000. The water authority put in $60,000, the conservancy another $60,000 and the city’s public works department performed $60,000 of in-kind services with the contractor, Eisler Landscaping.

The first phase of work, water-retentive grading, has been done on the Bob O’Connor golf course.

Graduate students in geology and planetary sciences at the University of Pittsburgh have been monitoring water movement for several years at the golf course and in Panther Hollow. Assistant professor Daniel Bain said they will monitor the latest project, too, to evaluate whether the restoration is working as it should.

In a future phase, part of Schenley Drive will be narrowed to accommodate water channels along the berms and a porous pedestrian path. The channels will divert storm water to rain gardens. This project is expected to reduce run-off by an estimated 3.35 million gallons each year.

But the Schenley Park project has reach beyond rain sequestration.

Phil Gruszka, director of park management and maintenance for the conservancy, said the work in Schenley Park will be several phases over many years and include complete restoration of Panther Hollow Lake.

As one big project, the estimated cost of $13 million is too big to swallow, but ”when you work in increments, starting at the top,“ he said, ”all the little interventions add up.“

Schenley Park’s new green infrastructure also will help residents of what City Councilman Corey O’Connor called “the Run” — the neighbors of Panther Hollow.

“The Run floods every time there’s a heavy rain” he said. “Those residents haven’t seen the benefits of green infrastructure, but they will now.”

”Cleaning up our environment is crucial to our health and our economy,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills. “This is the kind of partnership we’re looking for all over the region.”

He noted the recent project to divert rainwater on Etna’s Butler Street as one of a growing number of projects that “we want to become contagious. If every community under the consent decree had a plan in place, we could eliminate 100 million gallons of storm water a year from entering the [treatment] system.”

“If we have to spend millions of dollars” to comply with the EPA, said Kevin Acklin, chief of staff for Mayor Bill Peduto, “we should do it in a green manner that can spark economic development. This is a transformational opportunity for the next generation in our communities.”

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626.

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