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Westmoreland Conservation District efforts to curb flooding lauded

| Tuesday, July 17, 2012, 12:25 a.m.

A project to reduce flooding along Little Pucketa Creek in New Kensington was one of several bestowed with a 2012 Western Pennsylvania Environmental Award.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Council recognized the Westmoreland Conservation District for its four-year effort to improve water flow on the creek, particularly in the area of Valley High School.

Paul King, president of the environmental council, said the awards have been distributed for about two decades to organizations that work to address environmental issues west of the Susquehanna River.

Award criteria include "things like citizen involvement, impact on the environment (and) creative approaches to the environmental issue involved," King said.

The Westmoreland Conservation District in 2008 began working on Little Pucketa Creek, which was prone to clogging with debris that contributed to flooding during heavy rain.

The creek notably flooded the high school property and nearby neighborhoods when the remnants of Hurricane Ivan passed through in 2004.

Working in partnership with the Pucketa and Chartiers Watershed Association, New Kensington-Arnold School District and several other entities, the group shored up the creek bed, cleared out debris, added rock formations to improve the flow of water and installed a large basin near the Valley High School ball fields to filter out debris.

"This is a tremendous honor and recognition of what the partners on this project have done," said Greg Phillips, manager of the conservation district.

The collaborators have contributed "everything from technical expertise, to access to land, to funds -- a combined total of nearly $450,000 -- to improve the quality of life in the Alle-Kiski Valley," said Phillips.

Another aspect of the project included converting a little-used tennis court in front of the high school into an environment-friendly parking lot with a permeable surface that allows stormwater to drain slowly into the ground, rather than rushing off asphalt into the creek.

Phillips said the conservation district next will turn its eye to upstream communities and encourage them to engage in similar stormwater management projects that will reduce the amount and speed of water entering the Pucketa Creek Watershed.

King said the Western Pennsylvania Environmental Awards serve two primary purposes for the environmental council.

"We want to recognize good work and say thank you to those people who helped get it done," King said. "We also want to promote similar work to others, thereby improving the broader community environment as well."

Other award recipients included:

• The Kiski-Conemaugh Stream Team for its efforts to reduce acid mine drainage and restore the rivers through Armstrong, Westmoreland, Indiana and Cambria counties. Established in 1999, the Stream Team has a core group of up to 40 volunteers who collect water samples from 28 acid mine drainage treatment systems throughout the Kiski-Conemaugh area, according to Melissa Reckner of Somerset, director of the Stream Team. The samples, which are submitted to the state Department of Environmental Protection, help regulators and watershed groups direct cleanup efforts.

The group also conducts environmental education programs.

The $5,000 cash award, according to Reckner, is a "nice shot in the arm, and we'll put the money going back into the program."

• Giant Eagle, which last year opened the region's first compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling station. In addition to allowing for the replacement of some of the O'Hara-based grocer's delivery trucks that ran on diesel fuel, the station provides access to the alternative fuel to the public.

• Bradford Area School District, which reduced its utility use and costs, as well as its landfill-bound waste, through a wide array of environment-friendly projects.

• Lake Erie Region Conservancy for its work to preserve land along Lake Erie and keep it accessible for fishing and recreation.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge also received a lifetime achievement award.

King said the awardees each receive $5,000 to support their work; for-profit recipients donate the money to a charity of their choice. Event sponsor Dominion provides the financial rewards.

King said a committee, usually consisting of the council's former board members and associates from outside the region, chooses five to seven recipients each year.

"It's amazing: We've been doing this for a long time and you'd think we'd run out of projects, but that hasn't been a problem."

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