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Oakmont addresses Plum Creek flooding

| Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, 11:55 a.m.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Ted Sokol, owner of Oakmont Auto Body and Motorcycle, points to Plum Creek behind a makeshift dike protecting his property from flooding along Plum Street in Oakmont on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Plum Creek along Dark Hollow Road near the Oakmont, Verona, and Penn Hills border on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Plum Creek along Dark Hollow Road near the Oakmont, Verona, and Penn Hills border on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Plum Creek sits next to Ted Sokol's property along Plum Street in Oakmont, on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Plum Creek sits next to Ted Sokol's property where he has a dike partially constructed that is between 2 and 4 feet along Plum Street in Oakmont, on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013.

After hearing complaints of neglect, Oakmont Council is putting a greater focus on the flooding problems along Plum Creek.

For starters, the 2014 tentative budget includes $20,000 dedicated to begin addressing the situation. Final approval is expected Dec. 30.

In addition, borough officials met last week with representatives from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Allegheny County Conservation District.

Councilman Tom Briney, the borough's point man on the issue, said the meeting was to lay the groundwork for how to alleviate flooding.

“We're committing to the long-term process, but we're also going to be taking action on some things in the short term,” Briney said. “The good news, I think, is that we've found DEP is willing to work with us as a kind of clearinghouse for these projects.”

DEP spokesman John Poister confirmed that.

“We would entertain any idea that would not alter the stream, the stream path,” Poister said.

Solution not so simple

Ted Sokol lives along Plum Street next to the creek, and also owns Oakmont Auto Body there. He has experienced several floods through the years and has sharply criticized council for not taking action.

He sees the solution as a simple one.

“Until they dredge that creek and get it to its proper depth, which is 7 feet lower than it is now, ... every one of us along this street is going to get it again,” Sokol said.

He said the borough had backhoes dig out parts of the creek when flooding occurred in 1987. He said that provided relief until 2004, when torrential rain struck in the wake of Hurricane Ivan.

Dredging, however, is not on the table.

“Of the one thing I am absolutely sure is that DEP will never allow dredging,” Briney said.

John Poister, DEP spokesman, said, “In these kinds of things, dredging does not solve the problem — it exacerbates the problem, because it creates an unnatural flow to the creek.”

He said what Oakmont really is looking at is “stream remediation” and developing a plan to carefully control the runoff going into it.

However, he said that's tough because it flows through a developed area.

Creeks can only hold so much water before leaving their banks. ”We want to work with them to come up with some ideas that will reduce the chances of that happening as often,” Poister said.

“You want to talk about an unnatural flow?” Sokol said. “I thought it was unnatural that I had 5 feet of water in my building.”

Cautious approach

Bill Benusa, a former Oakmont councilman and president of the dormant Plum Creek Watershed Association, is someone who Sokol credits with trying to do something in the past. He attended the DEP meeting at the request of borough officials.

But Benusa doesn't agree with Sokol about dredging.

“You can't dredge the creek, but you can remove some of the material around sandbars,” Benusa said. “You can't change the depth of the creek.”

He said the borough will look all along the creek, particularly at the area upstream from Sokol's property where its leaf recycling pile was located, for spots where material can be removed.

That, however, would not go deeper than the stream's bottom.

According to Benusa, the data he has show that the mouth of Plum Creek at the Allegheny River has an elevation of 742 feet above sea level. The section near Sokol's property is only at 748 feet — a difference of only 6 feet.

“That's why you can't dredge there,” Benusa said. “It has to have a natural fall to it; all you are doing is making (the creek) deeper with dredging.”

Otherwise what could happen, he said, is that it could result in the creek creating pools in places and eventually pushing more water over its banks.

Mitigating circumstances

In addition to clearing obstructions in the creek, Benusa said the borough can regularly check and keep catch basins and sewer lines free of blockages.

He also said that creating parkland along Plum Creek will help. The work is being done by the two companies developing housing on the former Edgewater Steel property. The Kacin Companies, one of the developers, has already built Creekside Park at the upper end of the creek closer to the Plum-Penn Hills border.

Recreational land is commonly used to contain flood waters and alleviate pressure on swollen streams, since parks offer large areas with little or no property that can be damaged or destroyed.

Another piece of good news for the borough from the DEP is there is “an amazing amount of funds available” to do flood projects, according to Borough Manager Lisa Cooper Jensen.

Finally, the situation could lead to the watershed association, which included Plum, Verona and Penn Hills — becoming active again.

Briney and Benusa said storm runoff that results from development in Penn Hills and now especially Plum, finds its way into Plum Creek.

Briney said, “I think we would like to begin the conversation all over again with some of our neighbors regarding the Plum Creek Watershed and what we can do collectively to improve it.”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675.

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