Rain garden built at Baldwin High School to ease flash-flooding

Baldwin High School honors biology students Nick Pantelis (left), 14, and Thomas Becker, 15,  work together to plant shrubs and trees on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in front of the school.
Baldwin High School honors biology students Nick Pantelis (left), 14, and Thomas Becker, 15, work together to plant shrubs and trees on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in front of the school.
Photo by Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
| Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 7:20 p.m.

A rain garden that students and staff at Baldwin High School and community volunteers planted on Saturday won't in itself solve flash-flooding problems that have plagued the Route 51 corridor for years, local officials said.

But the mix of shrubs, perennials and grass — on a steep slope along the high school's entrance — is designed to capture rainwater before it flows onto the road and into the aging stormwater infrastructure and demonstrates what the future could hold, they said.

“We didn't get into this problem because of one paved sidewalk or one paved parking lot or one slate roof,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. “It took a long time to get into this, and it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of cumulative effect.”

With a $20,000 grant from the Port of Pittsburgh, the Baldwin bioretention demonstration project in the Streets Run watershed, nearly 50 volunteers prepared the ground and planted vegetation.

“It's just a good way to help with sewer and water runoff,” said Leah Stock, 14, a Baldwin freshman.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in front of the school.

Summer rains hit the South Hills hard, producing several days of flash flooding in July that flooded homes and submerged roads along Route 51.

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority has begun a study that could show how much vegetation it would take within certain-sized areas to reduce the flow of rainwater, agency spokeswoman Nancy Barylak said. Those results should be completed by December 2014 and folded into the agency's wet weather plan that will be given to federal regulators, she said.

Alcosan's board of directors last week voted to increase rates by almost 60 percent over the next four years in many communities to pay for system upgrades that would prevent heavy rains from sending raw sewage into area waterways during storms.

“We like to see this effort,” Barylak said of the Baldwin rain garden. “While it's off to a start, albeit a slow start, we're starting to hear more and more about projects in the planning stages, or like in Baldwin, it's shovel to ground, which is great.”

Alcosan is planning on spending more than $2 billion over 20 years to comply with Environmental Protection Agency mandates to stop the raw sewage overflows.

The soil in the Baldwin project is 50 percent sand, 30 percent topsoil and 20 percent compost, which absorbs the water rather than let it run downhill, said Lisa Kunst Vavro, sustainable landscape coordinator for the Penn State Center. It features curb channels, which will direct water from the nearby roads onto gravel designed to slow the flow.

She said the group plans to add monitoring equipment so that students can learn about drainage and other environmental impacts of the garden.

Gregory Jones, executive director of Economic Development South, which covers several South Hills communities, said the high visibility of the garden will educate motorists.

“Imagine how many people are at that red light (at Beall Drive) every day,” Jones said.

The Baldwin garden is the third done by the Penn State Center in Pittsburgh. The others are the Four Mile Run bioswale in Greenfield and a stormwater mitigation garden in Larimer.

One local group said improving infrastructure and incorporating “green solutions,” such as rain gardens, can help address the flooding problems.

“Does that one project solve our stormwater problems? No,” said Davitt Woodwell, executive vice president of the PA Environmental Council's western region. “If you look at strength in numbers, identifying where these projects should be done, what kind of projects and who should be responsible for them, if they're done properly, it should be encouraged.”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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