Bioswale project aims to stop flooding in Millvale

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Sprinkling holy water with a small branch from an Eastern hemlock, Sister Donna Zwigart of the Sisters of St. Francis at Mount Alvernia christened the completion of a stormwater management and filtration system intended to address flooding problems along Hawthorne Road in Millvale.

With a flick of her wrist, she was able to fling the holy water over a decorative red ribbon Oct. 9 and onto a rock-covered ditch known as a bioswale.

"We are all 75 or 80 percent water," Sister Donna began. "St. Francis was an environmentalist. They didn't call him that back then," she continued, to chuckles and nods from the crowd of roughly 50 people at the dedication ceremony.

Wielding oversize scissors lent for the occasion by the Millvale Community Library, she then snipped the ribbon, formally dedicating the town's first two bioswales.

A few minutes later, workers released a cascade of water from a tanker truck. The flow veered off the roadway and into the bioswale, a marked improvement over its usual path down the road and into the yards and basements of houses at the bottom, where Hawthorne meets Evergreen Avenue.

Running downhill along Hawthorne from the Sisters' Mount Alvernia campus, the 400-foot-long project features a depression cut about 2 feet deep lined with rocks and boulders. Interspersed every 50 feet or so, the level drops a few feet, forming a series of ripples, pools and eddies that mimic a natural stream. Planted above each side of the depression are native trees, plants and shrubs.

A cooperative project among the sisters, Millvale and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy's TreeVitalize program, the roadside bioswale (and another in the parking area on the sisters' campus above) is expected to reduce flooding that occurs because of excess stormwater runoff.

Millvale repeatedly suffered from such floods in recent years. Additionally, doing so is designed to reduce the pollution such overflows dump into Girty's Run, a stream that runs from the upper North Hills and into Millvale en route to the Allegheny River.

Funding for the bioswales came from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority. Best Feeds Outdoor Design of Pittsburgh built the bioswales, which were designed by Arthur Gazdik of Groundwork Civil LLC.

"I want to say thank you to the borough of Millvale, they've been amazing to work with," said Jeffrey Bergman, who represented the conservancy at the dedication ceremony.

"The sisters have just been wonderful to work with" on the project as well, conservancy gardens director Judy Wagner said after the event.

Mr. Bergman noted, "This is one of the largest bioswales in the United States of America. We are very lucky to have one here" in Millvale.

He also spoke of how the community and his organization cooperated to plant 850 trees in Millvale over the past year. Together, he said, the bioswales and trees represent an effort to promote green infrastructure in southwestern Pennsylvania.

According to Mr. Bergman, the conservancy will care for the bioswales and trees for the next two years. Along the way, they will train volunteers to tend to them thereafter.

Looking to the future, Ms. Wagner said the organization hopes to see more bioswales built in Western Pennsylvania. She said they already field inquiries from other communities interested in exploring whether to build them.

Ms. Wagner said the Penn-VEST program provided a grant for the Millvale project, but is switching to loans for future projects. The conservancy is exploring whether grants might be available from other sources.


Tim Tuinstra, freelance writer: First Published October 17, 2013 1:33 AM


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