Students learn lessons in going green

Rain garden at Baldwin High School seen as one small step in relieving Pittsburgh region's overburdened sewers

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There was some debate Saturday morning whether the rain garden springing up in front of Baldwin High School in Whitehall was a demonstration project or the real thing.

Let's call it both: a way to show the public how green infrastructure like strategically placed rocks, soil and plants can divert stormwater from the region's overburdened sewers, and a way to prevent flooding along a small patch of Clairton Boulevard where Baldwin freshman Natalie Weida sees water cause accidents and delays during a storm.

Natalie was on the scene during the coldest fall day yet, planting yarrow and oakleaf hydrangeas on the north slope of the lawn below her high school. Biology class bonus points and lunchtime pizza were promised. Dozens of students signed up to volunteer to plant and shovel mulch alongside community volunteers.

Stormwater management isn't the sexiest topic in school, but her teacher, Sarah Lyle, feels strongly about it. A resident of the Nine Mile Run watershed, Ms. Lyle installed a rain barrel at her Wilkinsburg home to keep more rainwater where it falls. The rain garden installation in Whitehall will be incorporated into Ms. Lyle's ecology unit, where students will monitor the water flows and learn about the function of native plants. They'll also learn about combined sewer and water systems, like the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority.

"Biology has changed a lot in the past 10 years," Ms. Lyle said. "It's less about animals and dissection and more about how organisms interact with the environment."

Each year, billions of gallons of sewage flow into the region's streams and rivers because Alcosan's infrastructure is overwhelmed by input from its 83 customer municipalities.

Proponents of green infrastructure, such as rain gardens, green roofs, permeable pavement and rain barrels, have been after Alcosan for years to rely on such practices to mitigate the problem.

But when Alcosan -- which is under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop sewer overflows into rivers -- submitted its wet weather plan to the federal agency last year, there was little mention of green infrastructure. Instead, the plan called for more than $2 billion to build giant tunnels that would enable the sewer authority to process more wastewater.

In January, Alcosan asked the EPA for an additional 18 months to study how to incorporate green infrastructure projects into its system. The EPA liked the idea. It had always been in favor of Alcosan requiring its customers to adhere to flow targets for their sewage, but they resisted the idea, the federal agency said.

The problem now is the same as it has been for the past decade, the EPA wrote in a letter to Alcosan in May: putting together a plan that requires 83 different entities to agree to spend their own capital on projects that will lessen the flow of water into Alcosan's system.

As these municipalities consider whether green infrastructure projects make sense for them, Stephanie Miller, manager of projects and initiatives at Economic Development South, hopes their officials will visit the demonstration project in Whitehall and judge for themselves.

Ms. Miller's organization, which serves a handful of communities south of Pittsburgh, worked with borough of Whitehall and The Penn State Center in Pittsburgh to bring the Whitehall rain garden to life. She estimates it will end up costing between $20,000 and $25,000, funded through a grant from the Port of Pittsburgh and with donated labor and equipment from Whitehall's public works department.

Ms. Miller's group is spearheading an environmental analysis of the entire Route 51 corridor, from the Liberty Tunnels to Elizabeth. Part of the study is to determine how green infrastructure could be incorporated into the area.

"It's a policy thing," she said.

A municipality can choose to require each new business locating in the area to incorporate green infrastructure, if that's important to the region, she said as an example.

"Pittsburgh is behind a lot of cities, but we're moving to the forefront," said Patrick Bondi, a horticulturist and Baldwin resident who volunteered Saturday to help with the high school's rain garden.

He's cognizant of the costs of stormwater runoff -- both environmental and economic -- as ratepayers end up footing the bill for infrastructure deficiencies, Mr. Bondi said.

Alcosan announced Thursday that rates would increase by about 60 percent over the next four years to fund its infrastructure improvements.

Still, as someone who's been going to green infrastructure workshops and community board meetings for years, Mr. Bondi is noticing a positive shift.

Green roofs have been installed at the County Office Building and at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.

Fox Chapel Area elementary schools, the Shaler municipal building and the communities of Moon, Etna, and Millvale have municipally supported rain gardens.

"This isn't a demonstration project," Mr. Bondi said, looking over the Shenandoah grass and black-eyed Susans peeking out of the ground in front of Baldwin High on Saturday. "It's actually helping a problem. By holding that water and slowing it down -- sure, it's a small fraction of the flooding problem, but it's still a step in the right direction."

Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455.

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