Brian O'Neill: The Run’s wet residents glimpse dry land
November 17, 2016 12:00 AM
Flooding on and around Saline Street in the Four Mile Run section of Greenfield on Aug. 28.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tired of seeing their streets flooded, 30 or more folks from Four Mile Run came out Tuesday night to hear an ambitious plan to keep more than 20 million gallons of rainwater out of their neighborhood.
You know the citizenry is serious when they pay more attention to the speakers than the free pizza. More than half the pies stayed in the boxes on a side table as a string of water-and-sewer types kept the audience rapt in the St. John Chrysostom church hall with a detailed plan on what’s coming.
Or more to the point, the people heard what will stop coming. That would be rainwater rushing down the hill in a heartstopping hurry from Schenley Park and other points above The Run, sending water geysering from manholes.
That warranted a rescue of a man and his young son from the roof of their car on Saline Street one Sunday night last August. More commonly, water floods basements and comes up through toilets in an ungodly, muddy stew, as Cathy Miller of Saline Street told anyone who cared to listen before the meeting, aided by photographic evidence of the slime scenes on her smartphone.
Tim Duggan, a landscape architect with the Kansas City/New Orleans company Phronesis, has been part of a team studying the city’s flooding problems for months. Four Mile Run, Washington Boulevard and the South Side around 21st Street are at the top of the list. Some 80 percent of the city’s problems arise from just 20 percent of the watersheds, Mr. Duggan said.
Not being from here, he needed “to learn what the landscape means,” and by that he meant the ways both water and people travel across it. Turns out much of our ancient stormwater and wastewater piping hereabouts doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Water rolling west from Squirrel Hill into Panther Hollow Lake, for instance, exits the lake and heads south toward the Monongahela in combined wastewater pipes, which means Allegheny County Sewer Authority customers are paying to treat spring water. That’s way stupid.
All that water is funneled into a crumbling, 19th-century brick pipe that runs about 400 feet to the Mon, emptying into the river from an opening so large “you could take your kayak into it if you wanted to,” James Stitt, manager of sustainability for the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority, said.
The PWSA, Alcosan and the Almono group, developing the old LTV mill site on the riverside in Hazelwood, are expected to chip in on a $1 million-plus project to repair that old pipe and build “green” infrastructure above it. That will likely include daylighting much of the water, letting what now unwisely goes into pipes become part of natural streams.
Alcosan will also spend roughly $1 million to provide a flapgate and other improvements at and around the river end of the pipe to keep the Mon from flowing back into it. Design of that is underway and construction is expected to begin in the fall of next year with completion in early 2018, an Alcosan spokesperson said.
That can’t come soon enough, but the more ambitious goal is keeping 22 million of the 27 million gallons of water, from a combined drainage area of 2,400 acres, out of the pipes and away from the homes in Four Mile Run entirely. This “urban acupuncture,” as Mr. Duggan described it, would include rain gardens, dredging the silt from Panther Hollow Lake so it can hold more water, letting a filtering stream flow south through what’s now overgrowth between Panther Hollow and The Run, and making street pavements pervious.
“The roads need to be like sponges, not like tabletops,” Mr. Duggan said dryly (everyone hopes).
All that could take five to eight years. Over the next weeks and months, surveyors of both a topographical and sociological bent will come through the neighborhood asking questions. They already know residents don’t want water in their basements or high in the streets; what they want to learn is whether they want, say, soccer fields along a stream that would skirt The Run’s western edge.
All this is part of Alcosan’s “green first” flow reduction strategy that’s supposed to keep billions of gallons in untreated sewage out of the three rivers. Those unhealthy discharges came about every third day this past summer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants that fixed but has indicated its compliance deadline could run as late as 2036 if green moves show they’re working.
Residents of The Run can’t wait decades. They’d like this fixed yesterday. But getting moved to the top of the to-do list has the current flowing in a better direction.
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