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Allegheny County, Pa., Emphasizes 'Green' Infrastructure in $2 Billion Stormwater Control Effort

Greening the county's antiquated sewer network can be accomplished through a series of regionally focused, strategically placed solutions, such as green roofs, permeable pavement and stormwater planters.

A massive stormwater system upgrade is underway in southwestern Pennsylvania's Allegheny County. Thanks to a push from local leaders and environmental advocates, the largest public works project in county history could incorporate "green" solutions as part of the plan.

And if the region is serious about going green, a few scattered municipalities planting trees or fitting homes with rain barrels won't be enough, said Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, director of the Clean Rivers Campaign. Officials from the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit believe eco-conscious resolutions must be implemented regionwide to improve stormwater runoff and make communities more livable.

"Green infrastructure is something people are thinking can be a viable solution," Rafanan Kennedy said. "This is our opportunity to get it right."

Going with the Flow

The $2 billion stormwater control effort is set to reduce an estimated 9 billion gallons of sewage flowing into area waterways during heavy rainfalls. Though "gray" infrastructure -- including enormous subterranean storage tunnels -- will be part of the plan, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and other government leaders have emphasized "green first" as the slogan moving forward.

The region's changing wet weather strategy came up again in March when the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection granted Pittsburgh and its surrounding municipalities an 18-month extension to produce a sewer plan, with a caveat that green fixes must be part of the enterprise.

Greening Allegheny County's antiquated sewer network can be accomplished through a series of regionally focused, strategically placed solutions, said Rafanan Kennedy. Among them are green roofs, rain barrels, permeable pavement, bioswales and stormwater planters. Thoughtfully planting trees throughout the area also could assist flow reduction by capturing, filtering and storing water, Rafanan Kennedy said.

Last year, the city and local water authority conducted a stormwater surface flow assessment to determine best practices in sponging up excess rainfall. In response, landscape elements called bioswales were built at local parks to absorb and filter runoff.

"That's the exciting thing about these projects," said Rafanan Kennedy. "You can have a great pocket park that also has a stormwater function."

Higher-impact water management projects are also in the works, she added, noting that in June, the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association (NMRWA), a Clean Rivers partner, announced a project designed to prevent sewage and stormwater runoff from entering the urban stream located in Pittsburgh's East End.

The first phase of the Rosedale Runoff Reduction Project (RRRP) will be completed next year, removing approximately 4 million gallons of annual sewage-polluted overflow from the Nine Mile stream through installation of three high-performing green infrastructure facilities. Additional plans include free installation of 200 Hydra rain barrels and rain gardens to property owners that sign up for the program, said Sara Madden, a design manager with the NMRWA's Stormworks program.

NMRWA is in the process of raising the near $1 million cost of the plan's initial phase through a variety of grants and funding from private donors, Madden said.  Meanwhile, the organization is reaching out to the community to promote the benefits of green infrastructure.

"A big part of this project is to get residents to better understand their own contributions to the runoff problem, demonstrating that smaller-scale interventions on their own properties can make a measurable difference," Madden said. "There are a variety of lot-level solutions that residents and homeowners can adopt that can have an impact."

Green Regionalization

Bioswales and watersheds may be abstract concepts to many folks, but the outcome of green infrastructure stretches beyond the environmental, its proponents declare. In its meetings with affected neighborhoods, NMRWA officials tied the concept of runoff  management with beautification of the overall landscape.

"You can have an attractive, enjoyable place to walk through while managing stormwater," said Madden.

Properly managed, green improvements can result in better air quality, reduced flooding, trimmed heating and cooling costs, and even jobs replanting rain gardens or moving earth to control water flow, said Rafanan Kennedy.

"These are across the board improvements," she added. "Green infrastructure can fit the bill."

Rafanan Kennedy also noted that Pittsburgh and the 82 other municipalities involved with the stormwater plan must develop a communitywide green-centric strategy to ensure benefits are widespread. She points to the proposed renovation of a 178-acre Pittsburgh-area riverfront brownfield site into office, industrial and housing space. The plan includes green approaches to stormwater management that could stretch across a multi-modal transit corridor connecting one neighborhood to another.

Should it succeed, she said, the project can serve as a litmus test for linking future green infrastructure efforts throughout the region.

"We need to see strategic placement and a thoughtful regional plan for these projects," she said. "It has to be a coordinated approach."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given regional planners, including those in Pittsburgh, until 2026 to fully implement a viable stormwater runoff solution. While green alternatives aren't the end-all for the region's billion-dollar sewer issue, they could be part of the answer.

"We'll be looking at a hybrid approach between green and gray infrastructure," Rafanan Kennedy said. "It's critical for us to figure this out."

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland-based writer and journalist. He has written stories about technology, alternative energies and the environment for local and regional publications including Midwest Energy News, hiVelocity magazine and Fresh Water Cleveland.