Etna celebrates green infrastructure for storm water

Arletta Scott Williams stood far back in a crowd along Butler Street storefronts in Etna on Thursday but clapped loudly when Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald praised the borough as “one of the leaders in our region” on storm water infrastructure.

“And you,” he said to Ms. Williams, as all eyes turned to her. “You must be so happy you won’t have to treat all that water.”

Ms. Williams, executive director of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, reacted with a bow and whispered, “This is phenomenal.”

Then Mr. Fitzgerald and other public officials cut a green ribbon that collapsed to the sidewalk, brushing a sinuous band of cast iron grating that every year will catch half a million gallons of rainwater that used to go to Alcosan for treatment, according to the borough’s engineer consultant, Don Newman.

The elegant grate with a pattern of fern leaves undulates from one circular tree grate to the next all the way down the block between Bridge and Freeport streets. Most of the 12 buildings along that block agreed to have their downspouts removed so the rainwater from their roofs is now routed under the grates to be filtered into the ground.

Etna Mayor Tom Rengers noted that the street is much prettier now, but added, “The real beauty of this is underground.”

He was referring to a system of pipes and holding tanks beneath the street that catch the storm water and then slowly release it into the ground.

The Environmental Protection Agency funded the first phase with a $415,000 grant. The next phase will repeat the grate for another block on Butler. The plan is being reviewed now, with construction funding pending, said Doug Goodlander, a program chief for the state Department of Environmental Resources.

Etna officials identified 25 sites where green infrastructure could have the highest impact and calculated that for a one-time cost of $6.1 million, the systems would divert 16.1 million gallons each year.

At the end of June, the borough constructed a rain garden at the edge of a parking lot at Walnut and School streets, in large part with funds from 3 Rivers Wet Weather and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Mr. Rengers said.

Borough manager Mary Ellen Ramage said the rain garden “has been a great educational tool. When it went in, people called and said, ‘Mary Ellen, come up here; they’re leaving a hole in the ground.’ With the first rain, people called and said, ‘The garden is flooding.’ It is designed to fill up.” In less than 48 hours, the water had absorbed into the ground, she said.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, cited Etna’s history of flooding and noted the public cost rainwater unnecessarily adds to the system, in treatment and in loss.

“When you do a project like this, you take water away from the big gray monster,” he said, making reference to Alcosan’s industrial infrastructure. “If every one of our communities came up with strategies like this, we would not see the devastation we’ve seen.”

Ms. Williams said Alcosan’s job “would be so much easier” if every borough were as committed as Etna. “Not every borough has the opportunities and configurations to do this same project,” she said, “but if everyone would step up with a project, the difference would be huge.”

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626.

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