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Environmentalists are determined to salvage Nine Mile Run

Sunday, November 10, 2002

By Deborah Weisberg

Red Burg remembers playing as a boy near Nine Mile Run -- a lifeless urban stream that skirts Swisshelm Park.

A small waterfall in Nine Mile Run - near Braddock Avenue and the Parkway East - is elevated because if a sewer line hidden under the concrete. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette photos)

He recalls how quickly sudden rains could make the creek swell as it surged from its culverted headwaters in neighboring Wilkinsburg. "There'd be these flash floods when kids were playing in the stream," said Burg, 82. "Every now and then, a kid would drown and I'd get called to help find the body. Sometimes, it'd wash clear down to the Monongahela River."

"Summers would be the opposite. The stream would be so dry."

What Burg never dared hope -- that a liability could be turned into a recreational asset -- is beginning to take shape in the middle of Frick Park. Within a decade or two, say environmentalists as determined as the stream itself, bass, sauger and other game fish may inhabit pools and riffles that now exist only on the drawing boards, but will be implemented next spring, as part of an aquatic ecosystem restoration project within a larger watershed improvement plan.

"They say they can bring it back, but I don't know," Burg said, of Nine Mile Run -- named for its distance from the Point. "That water's awful dirty."

Human waste has always been a problem since pipes carrying both storm water and sewage are so obsolete they can't contain the overflow on really rainy days. The lack of groundwater recharge -- given the amount of concrete surface in the watershed -- causes problems with low flow during dry periods. "Fish can learn to live with sewage, but can't survive without consistent flow," said Joan Blaustein, a former city planner now with Three Rivers Wet Weather, a non-profit that is helping communities comply with federal mandates around sewer system standards.

Storm drains from Edgewood, Swissvale, Wilkinsburg and parts of the city all dump water -- and trash -- into Nine Mile Run where it first sees daylight 20 feet below Braddock Avenue at the entrance to Frick Park. "The water sort of explodes out of the culvert," said Marijke Hecht, coordinator of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association. High volume has created such erosion that banks are dangerously undercut and the stream, over-wide and shallow.

The constant force of the stream also has exposed old pipes, so that, even if water quality could sustain more than the occasional blacknose dace or creek chub now found there, fish would be thwarted in their upstream migration. Then there's leachate from the 20 million tons of slag that steel mills dumped at the edge of the park, giving the water a caustic alkalinity. But if it hadn't been for the slag dump -- and its transformation into Summerset, an upscale city housing development -- Nine Mile Run might have continued to go ignored.

"We said, 'What are we going to do with this stream?' " Blaustein recalled of her days with the city. "Some people wanted it covered over. That would have been easy."

The visionaries prevailed.

"Nine Mile Run is one of the last urban streams we haven't lost," said Tim Collins, Director of Three Rivers Second Nature and co-director of the Nine Mile Run Project, a Carnegie Mellon University based initiative. "Yeah, we have a water quality problem. But you go into the park -- about a third of the watershed is in Frick Park -- and you'll find water running clean with fairly amazing diversity. I took some kids up there last spring and found a snapping turtle. We saw an immature beaver in the park. Think of it as a seed source that will replenish Nine Mile Run."

The Army Corps of Engineers believes enough in Nine Mile Run to have given more than $5 million in funds toward its restoration. The city has kicked in another $2 million. A design by the Maryland-based Biohabitat calls for putting a trash rack and plunge pools at the Braddock Avenue entrance, reconfiguring the stream in a graceful meander to Commercial Road -- about half of its two-mile length -- and adding rocks and other structure to establish a riffle-pool sequence, according to Hecht, who expects this work to begin next spring. The stream will wend through a series of wetlands, including one at Fern Hollow, planted with flood plain trees such as slippery elm, black and silver maple, American sycamore, sourgum and box elder, and non-woody plants that include swamp milkweed, tall coneflower, wool grass, button bush and silky dogwood. The wetlands will absorb excess flow, and will provide much-needed groundwater recharge to replenish the stream during dry periods. The old stream channel also will handle overflow.

Concurrently, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority will continue to make drainage improvements. So far, it has spent $1 million to reline the main sewer trunk and is only halfway through its project, Hecht said.

Whether the leachate around Commercial Road will be pumped away or treated has not been decided.

"There's a lot enthusiasm for the project. A lot of people have shown faith," said Army Corps of Engineers lymnologist Michael Koryak. "But a lot of things have to come together. It takes a big time commitment from the mayor, city planning, Alcosan, the watershed association ... But I'm an optimist."

So, too, is Rick Lorson, a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologist who supports the restoration of heavily impacted urban streams, such as Turtle Creek, another Mon trib, which made the state's trout-stocking list several years ago after decades of sewage and acid mine drainage remediation. Lorson likes that Nine Mile Run is accessible and in a public park. "If the project finds its way to completion, and water quality substantially improves, we may consider it for our stocking program," he said. "But that's probably a long way off."

Marijke Hecht, coordinator of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, talks about the revitalization of the stream.

Only pollution-tolerant minnows have been found in pools beyond the first of several sewer line crossings about two-tenths of a mile above the mouth, said Koryak. While the pipes -- all impediments to fish -- will not be removed, rubble will be added to make the grade changes more subtle so that, given clean water and adequate flow, fish now found in the lower reach of the stream may make their way farther up. They include emerald shiners, gizzard shad, green sunfish, smallmouth bass, bluegill and even largemouth bass.

Those species and others abound at the mouth of Nine Mile Run -- where an embayment will be expanded as part of the project. "It's excellent habitat, and one of the least costly and most effective things we can do," Koryak said.

Even after stream restoration is completed, work on the watershed -- which encompasses 6 1/2 square miles and 48,000 people in Squirrel Hill, Duck Hollow, Regent Square, South Homewood, Swisshelm Park, Edgewood, and Wilkinsburg -- will continue as funding is made available. It is the environmentalists' long-term hope that concrete will be replaced with green, that trees will stand where there are now vacant lots, that litter will no longer blight the landscape, and that homeowners will set out barrels to collect rainwater for their gardens. "If we look at it from a holistic perspective -- increasing the urbanite's connection with the natural world -- we can use water and still keep it clean," said Hecht.

For more information, visit http://www.slaggarden.cfa.cmu.edu.

Key dates

The second Monday of every month, from 9 a.m. to noon, Hecht leads walking tours of Nine Mile Run. For details, call 412-848-7890. (Plan to wear boots.)

From 9 a.m. to noon today, representatives of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, the city of Pittsburgh, Biohabitat and others involved in the project will be in the Falls Ravine Shelter of Frick Park to answer questions and display drawings of the plan. Enter the park through Hutchinson Street or from behind the tennis courts in Regent Square.

At 3 p.m. today, beginning at the Frick Environmental Center, the public can join a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks as they walk Nine Mile Run, dispersing a sacred work of art they have created from sand. The monks, who traveled here from India to share their healing work, created a sand mandela -- a traditional meditation piece -- as part of an exhibit of environmental art being shown now through Thursday at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside. Tying their mandela to Nine Mile Run is a way for the monks to apply their principles to something local, said clinical psychologist Tova Tarr, who arranged for the monks' visit, and whose husband, Joel Tarr, a professor of history and policy at Carnegie Mellon University, helped develop the Nine Mile Run restoration project.

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