Walkabout: Synagogue plants environmental cure to curb rain runoff

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On the western corner of Temple Sinai's Forbes Avenue property in Squirrel Hill, 50 people spent five hours Sunday creating a 16-by-23-foot sponge of plants and mulch.

It will be fed when the next rain pours from the roof to the gutter, down the disengaged downspout into a bank of gravel that will release it at a trickle across a small trench in the sidewalk to the rain garden.

Depending on the duration and severity of any one storm, one little patch like that keeps tens to hundreds of gallons of water out of the municipal system.

As impatient as a hungry raccoon, I always think "little by little" means "too little by too little" when I hear about another small, sustainable solution to our wildly expensive and massive problems.

I wonder why everybody who has cognizance and a few hundred dollars doesn't do what Temple Sinai has done. The more water that's kept out of underground pipes, the less overflow. The less water to treat, the less cost to us all -- except that if Alcosan builds pipes and tanks to the tune of $2 billion to meet a government mandate to reduce sewage overflow, our bills will go up regardless of solutions we provide at home.

Alcosan should consider offering people who spend on solutions of their own some relief from the rate hike.

At Temple Sinai, I imagined the rain garden as a patch on a quilt of Pittsburgh that's still a mostly empty frame. I imagined patches filling in the quilt from where I stood: a patch in the property across Murdoch Street and patches on each property across Forbes and then, hopping over Wightman and up Forbes toward Murray Avenue.

I took my fantasy citywide: Alcosan subsidizes a rain barrel for every property owner and partners with Nine Mile Run Watershed Association to install them. In fantasy, of course, time stands still. In reality, Alcosan has until Jan. 23 to submit its final plan to the Allegheny County Health Department, state Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Rabbi Ronald B.B. Symons, director of Temple Sinai's Tikkun Olam Center for Social Justice, said the rain garden, whose installation was organized by Zelda Curtiss, was one result of a session in which congregants were asked to name things that "kept them up at night -- not arthritis or money or kids but something they could dedicate time to" to make the world a better place.

About 200 people voted on 17 categories, paring the list to four: public education, transportation, elder care and the environment. The rain garden shows the synagogue's commitment to that environmental goal as Alcosan wrestles with its costly choices.

"The way we plan to spend that $2 billion is the opportunity of two or three generations," said the rabbi, who spoke out for a 21st century solution at an Alcosan public hearing Friday. "Fifty years from now, people will either say 'Pittsburgh did it right' or they will say, 'Oh Pittsburgh. They had the potential to go green and didn't.' "

Alcosan had to bring in extra chairs at the hearing for the growing number of voices urging green solutions -- rain gardens and rain barrels, permeable pavement and water diversion projects -- as a way to prevent wet-weather overflows of untreated wastewater into our rivers, to cut the cost of Alcosan's plan and also create jobs.

Rabbi Symons said his congregation's contribution could be implemented "from synagogue to synagogue, church to church, mosque to mosque. If we can do this on an old house" -- Temple Sinai includes what was a large estate -- "anyone can do it."

Three rain barrels will be installed around the property to keep water out of the municipal system for use on other plantings.

Volunteers created the rain garden with guidance from the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association and inspiration from a visitor who lives on a desert kibbutz in Israel.

"He talked to our kids about how they survive without rain," said Rabbi Symons.

"They pull water from the ground and reuse it in specific drops exactly where it is needed. In our Western world, we think all you have to do is turn on a spigot," he said. "But we have an intimate responsibility to care for our water.

"When they go to Mars, what are they looking for?" the rabbi asked before providing the answer himself: "Water."

neigh_city - environment - intelligencer

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk. First Published October 23, 2012 4:00 AM


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