The Saw Mill Run Valley, which borders Carrick, could become a beautiful, four-mile stretch of urban greenspace instead of being flooded by Saw Mill Run during heavy rains.
Watersheds of South Pittsburgh (WoSPgh) has a vision to reconnect the flood plain with the stream, leading to less flooding. The idea is to create four miles of greenspace along Saw Mill Run and on both sides of Saw Mill Run Boulevard. In the organization’s multi-purpose concept, less flooding leads to a higher level of development – coffee shops, restaurants and more businesses in general – along with pockets of park space where people can enjoy the stream and perhaps even walk trails.
“We are the first organization that has really promoted this vision, and in the next few years, I’m looking to see a catalyst project that would really move this forward,” WoSPgh Executive Director Lisa Werder-Brown said.
PA Route 51, named Saw Mill Run Boulevard in the city, is a heavily traveled four-lane road that passes through South Pittsburgh. Saw Mill Run Boulevard follows Saw Mill Run, an urban stream that drains water from Pittsburgh, Castle Shannon, Bethel Park and other municipalities in the South Hills.
“The stream is really quite beautiful. I think eventually it will impact on Carrick by improving the conditions along Route 51,” Werder-Brown said.
Flooding is an issue in the Saw Mill Run Valley. The Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority (PWSA) organized a stormwater investigation team to respond to residents’ complaints about the flooding. City planning is doing a feasibility study on what kind of mechanism they can do to increase greenspace along the Saw Mill Run Valley. WoSPgh is putting out a request for proposals for a study that could be completed by the end of 2022.
Flooding has been a problem in the Saw Mill Run Valley for a long time. Werder-Brown pointed out that “the valley was always prone to flooding way back into the 1800s” as water careened off steep hillsides into the stream. Then, as the area grew, the ground was paved with concrete and asphalt. Water can’t penetrate the paving. It runs off, leading to increased flooding that damages houses. When the floodwaters flow back into the stream, they carry pollution and debris back to the stream with it.
Flooding leads to disinvestment. Without fresh money flowing into the four-mile stretch that is Saw Mill Run, its valley and the boulevard, the area remains underdeveloped. The idea is that fixing the flooding issue can lead to economic growth along that four-mile stretch.
Watersheds Of South Pittsburgh is a relatively new organization that was formed to create an integrated management plan for Saw Mill Run that addresses water quality and flooding. It started as part of Economic Development South (EDS). In 2019, WoSPgh separated from EDS. It took over the dormant Streets Run Watershed Association. WoSPgh stewards both Saw Mill Run and Streets Run. It sees itself as a rallying point for people who are concerned about the health of their local streams, watersheds and communities.
As well, the PWSA, operating under a consent order from the PA Department of Environmental Protection, put together the Saw Mill Run Integrated Watershed Management Plan to manage stormwater across municipal boundaries. Their multi-agency partnership includes WoSPgh. The PWSA plan calls for greenspace and infrastructure improvements to manage storm water runoff.
A watershed is land that rain and melted snow flow through on their way to water. The Saw Mill Run watershed consists of 14 Pittsburgh neighborhoods and 12 other municipalities that drain into the stream. Typically, the more greenspace exists in a watershed, the less flooding happens.
Municipalities are required by federal law to reduce the pollution load of their streams. Doing that on a piecemeal basis doesn’t have the same impact as communities banding together through organizations like WoSPgh.
Volunteers associated with the watershed association wade into Saw Mill Run to pull out litter and debris once or twice a year. Public access to the stream is limited – they can enter at the Seldom Seen greenway and work upstream, or get into the stream at Castle Shannon and work downstream. During their first stream cleanup, “we took out probably three or four big DPW dump trucks full of trash, and each year it’s been less and less,” Werder-Brown said, adding, “We’ve never been able to do the length of the stream. We do as much as we can.”
A spring stream cleanup is scheduled for April 24th, 2021, at 9:00 AM. People are asked to show up at the James Street parking lot in Castle Shannon. Upwards of forty people turn out for stream cleanups.
Asked about her biggest achievement so far at WoSPgh, Werder-Brown said, “The one thing that we have done so far is that we have directed local government officials, foundations, state entities to finally put attention on this neglected area.”
Building on that attention could lead to less flooding, more investment and pockets of greenspace along Saw Mill Run Boulevard that people can enjoy for generations. That sort of major change takes time. “I’m going to give a twenty year timeline.”