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Communities consider 'green' alternatives for runoff control

Bob Bauder
| Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011

Etna's moment of stormwater clarity happened with Hurricane Ivan in September 2004.

The storm inundated about a fourth of the borough, an Allegheny River community with about 3,400 residents just upstream of Pittsburgh, Manager Mary Ellen Ramage said. Water, 8 feet deep in places, flooded about 400 homes. At the borough building on Butler Street, water was up to the light switches.

"We started talking about things where we could help ourselves," Ramage said

Etna has joined a growing roster of municipalities to consider green initiatives to reduce stormwater runoff and cut down on the 9 billion gallons of untreated sewage that pour annually into rivers from area communities, mostly during heavy storms.

The borough will begin a green streetscape project next year designed to eliminate up to 20 percent of run-off from storefronts along one block of Butler Street. Downspouts that run into the sewer system will be redirected into rain gardens and a rain park, landscape designs that can hold and absorb water. Officials are considering a residential program using rain barrels.

In older communities such as Etna, rain water and sewage run through the same pipes. Heavy rain overwhelms the systems and sewage then flows untreated into rivers.

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority estimates it will cost the 83 communities in its system as much as $3 billion to $8 billion for traditional infrastructure — pipes, holding tanks and bigger wastewater treatment plants — to meet federal and state mandates for drastically reducing sewage overflows. The money would come from ratepayers through increased sewer bills.

Under the law, ALCOSAN and the communities must have new systems in place by 2026.

Construction is expected to begin in five years, and that's when sewage rates will escalate. Shaler Manager Timothy Rogers, who was among a panel of experts discussing the problem at Carnegie Mellon University last week, said rates would at least double.

On its website, ALCOSAN says that in 2012 a homeowner using 15,000 gallons of water per quarter will pay $73.15.

Green projects — things such as rain gardens, rain parks, rooftop gardens and vegetated swales — are becoming more attractive as communities calculate the staggering cost of traditional infrastructure.

Pittsburgh has sponsored rain gardens in Perry South, Mount Washington and Brighton Heights as part of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's Green Up Pittsburgh project. Run-off from the August Wilson Center, Downtown, is collected beneath a sidewalk and waters the roots of trees planted along the street.

Growing movement

Shaler recently completed a large rain garden fronting its municipal building to absorb run-off, Rogers said. The garden is a demonstration project to teach other communities. The garden can absorb up to 2,000 gallons of water during a storm.

Heidelberg Mayor Ken LaSota said the borough plans a three-block-long rain garden along Route 50 to absorb water that typically pools on the highway.

Mt. Lebanon this year became the first community in the region to enact a stormwater fee — about $8 per month for an average homeowner. Residents can get up to $50 off their stormwater bills if they install such things as rain barrels.

Local supporters say they hope green projects will be cheaper than traditional water management methods, but with Western Pennsylvania's hilly topography, that's still a theory.

"We need to get more green infrastructure in the ground to get a really good handle on the costs and benefits," said John Schombert, executive director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather, a nonprofit created in 1993 to help Allegheny County communities deal with aging sewage infrastructure and stormwater problems.

Other benefits

Janie French, director of green infrastructure for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council's southwestern office in Pittsburgh, said trees, vegetation and flowers used to absorb rainwater improve community aesthetics. Trees and rooftop gardens reduce heating and cooling costs, she said.

"We need to think about what can we do on top of the ground to manage rainwater where it falls, versus putting it in pipes," she said. "The green solutions ... are not going to totally solve the problem, but they're going to help an awful lot."

Ramage said Etna will spend about $400,000, most of which comes from a state grant, for its streetscape project on the north side of Butler Street between Bridge and Freeport streets. Sidewalks there will feature brick pavers, which allow water to drain through. Four rain gardens will absorb the water. Engineer Donald Newman said the project would remove up to 20 percent of run-off in that block.

"People say, 'Oh my god Mary Ellen, that's such a small amount (of water),' but the point is we have to start somewhere, and we have to help ourselves," Ramage said. "This is a permanent solution, and it's taking the water out at its source."

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