Archive for 2019


Hello all! My name is Kelly, and I’m the newest addition to the team at Nine Mile Run Watershed Association! Some of you might have already seen my face at recent community events, but I’d like to take a moment to introduce myself, tell you a little bit about why I’m here and what I’ll be working on. I’m a first year Master of Social Work candidate at University of Pittsburgh, where I am specializing in community outreach and social action. I am honored to do my field practicum placement at NMRWA, where I hope to use my ethics, values, inherent passion for social issues, education, and desire to serve my community to form a holistic social work practice.

Hiking to the top of Flatirons National Monument in Boulder, CO. This particular rock looks more precipitous than it was.

You might be thinking, “What does social work have to do with the environment?” The answer to that question is best framed by the following quote from the Council on Social Work Education:

“Many environmental justice issues are intrinsically and increasingly connected with social and economic justice issues, which the social work profession has championed since its inception. These issues are global, national, and local in nature. Environmental social work is global in nature and therefore tied to global social work.”

Additionally, the National Association of Social Worker’s Code of Ethics says that the primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. 

Illustration: Erin Dunn via https://ensia.com/voices/environmental-justice/

It is the intersection of these two ideas that forms the framework of the concept of environmental justice.

Environmental justice is not new concept by any means, but it’s starting to gain more traction due to the pressing effects of pollution and climate change that manifest disproportionately in underserved communities. Environmental justice as a movement was started by Dr. Robert Bullard (who is known as the father of environmental justice), and has been an issue at the forefront of black activism for years.

 Dr. Robert D Bullard, the father of environmental justice. Illustration: Richard A Chance via The Guardian

Keeping these things in mind, I hope to spend my time here at NMRWA doing case studies on other urban watersheds and working with other leaders in our communities to achieve environmental justice through the promotion of social justice values and by using an inclusive approach to outreach.

In addition, I look forward to incorporating ideas from my interests in geology, botany, sustainability, and other natural sciences into my methods of outreach and am excited to reflect on the ways that the natural sciences interact with social systems.

If you see me around, feel free ask me any questions you might have or just say hi!

P.S. on a personal note, if anyone is ever interested in geeking out about plants, plant medicine, geology, alluvial fans, or even anything related to Star Wars, feel free to approach me! As a gift from me, please enjoy this photo of Baby Yoda as a succulent that I took from an article that discusses why succulents are the Baby Yodas of houseplants.

This, indeed, is the way. Image courtesy of https://www.sunset.com/home-garden/plants/baby-yoda-succulents

Our last water talk of the year (and the decade) focused on Greater Pittsburgh’s climate future. At the talk, held at a community gathering space in Homewood, Pittsburgh on November 17, Jordan Fischbach of RAND Corporation and Ian Smith of Energy Independent Solutions offered individual and collective solutions for Greater Pittsburgh and its residents as we face the climate challenges of the future. Jordan introduced us to the big picture of the imminent changes in the climate and discussed RAND’s research projects to help spur innovation to adapt to the climate crisis. Ian offered a specific solution that watershed-area homeowners can take to combat climate change—using solar energy.

Jordan, who is co-director of RAND’s Climate Resilience Center, made it clear that climate change is going to impact our future, and is already impacting our present. He said Pittsburgh’s climate will look more like Kentucky’s in the not-too-far future. In about 30 years, the city will go from an average of 0 days above 95 degrees Fahrenheit per year to about 20 days per year. As another effect of climate change, major storm events are already proliferating, especially in the Northeastern US (including Pennsylvania).

One of Jordan’s recent studies concerned Greater Pittsburgh’s climate future, with specific focus on stormwater management. The two-pronged project featured an analysis of many simulations of Pittsburgh’s possible future climate and community engagement with local stakeholders. The project’s goals included learning what stormwater management solutions might be the most palatable for a wide variety of possible futures. (Learn more about Jordan’s past study here.)

This fall, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) signed a new consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency. Jordan applied his knowledge from his research to analyze the consent decree. While he noticed there were some good elements to the deal, like expanding the ALCOSAN water treatment plant, he was troubled by the focus on building underground reservoirs for water and the estimates of flow that the decree was based on. (Read more about the consent decree at WESA.)

The consent decree uses a baseline year as a predictor of future years’ weather, a practice that can easily be called into question given predictions of rapid future climate change. Moreover, the baseline year ALCOSAN and the EPA chose is 2003—not only 16 years ago, but also a lighter year for rainfall than almost any of the 9 years afterwards. Meanwhile, Jordan said 2018 and 2019 have been two of the heaviest rainfall years on record for the region.

According to WESA, the inclusion of Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) in the new consent decree was “the major win” of the decree. However, the plan doesn’t go far enough in this regard. Our fellow Pennsylvanians in Philadelphia have already implemented their own initiative to greatly expand GSI. (Read more about Philadelphia’s GSI initiative here.)

We think this consent decree is a chance for Pittsburgh to follow Philadelphia by greatly expanding our use of green infrastructure. GSI can help us manage stormwater and build a more sustainable and beautiful Pittsburgh. The current consent decree is a start, but it could and should go much further. 

Allegheny County residents can raise their voices about expanding the role of GSI in the consent decree during the decree’s public comment period, which lasts until December 2. Visit bit.ly/alcosan to send a message to the EPA—you can use the default message on that page or write one of your own.Jordan is currently running a project that focuses on GSI in the Negley Run watershed, one of our nearby watersheds in the East End of Pittsburgh. The new study includes some steps that are similar to Jordan’s previous research. His team of researchers are running what he called an “uncertainty analysis” including more simulations of future storm and flooding conditions, and they are planning further community engagement. They are using their research to analyze the costs and benefits of stormwater projects that could be implemented in the Negley Run watershed, with a specific focus on GSI. (Read more about Jordan’s current study here.)

Ian followed Jordan by discussing solar energy. He was able to cover the topic both as an employee of a firm that installs solar panels and as a homeowner in the watershed area with solar panels on his own home. 

Ian told us that homeowners can estimate the potential monthly value of solar energy to their pocketbook. If a homeowner gets all their energy from solar, Ian said their electric bill will come out to about $12. This means that a homeowner’s total electric bill minus this $12 is roughly the value of energy from the electric grid that they currently use. 

Ian said that solar panels tend to pay for themselves within eight to 15 years, depending on the circumstances. A significant tax credit is available for the year of solar panel purchase, but the credit is being phased out, so it may not be valid for purchases made after 2021.

Since solar energy is unlikely to meet all of a homeowner’s energy needs at all times, two types of backup exist. One is a battery backup, and the other is to connect to the regular energy grid as a backup. The latter is called “net metering”, and its major drawback is that solar energy cannot be used if the electric grid goes down. This is generally not a major problem in the watershed area, as Ian said outages are relatively uncommon and of short duration in the area, and net metering users can purchase a small generator for emergencies. Neither option is more costly than the other. 

For low- and moderate-income Pittsburghers who want to install solar panels, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh’s Pittsburgh Home Redevelopment Program (PHRP) offers zero-interest loans for solar panel installments and other home improvements. (To learn more about PHRP and whether you qualify, visit this link.)

Rooftop solar panels are not right for every situation, as Ian acknowledged. For homeowners who plan to remain in place for the long-term, they’re a great solution. For some groups, such as renters or those planning to move, installing solar panels may be untenable or unaffordable. “Community solar” programs, which allow residents of many buildings and homes to use energy from a single solar infrastructure base, are a possible solution to this problem that has been adopted in other states. Pennsylvania currently has pending legislation to allow community solar programs in our state. (Learn more about the pending community solar legislation and about PA’s renewable energy status in general here.)

Installing solar panels on one’s home is an individual action that can help make our region more sustainable, for those who can afford it. Community solar programs help make solar energy a big-picture solution. Individuals can also lobby major organizations like ALCOSAN and the EPA, or even send a message to their local congressperson, to make sure that our voices are heard in support of the large-scale initiatives needed to adapt to climate change. As we head into the 2020s, we will need both individual and collective action to help make sure we have a livable watershed and community to pass down to the generations to come.

Post written by John Lavaccare, Communications Intern


Fall is here once again!  Now the trees are shedding their leaves and creating a rainbow of debris on our yards. While some may view this annual happening as a nuisance, it should be viewed as a marvelous opportunity to make your yard a more ecologically friendly space. 

In the past, armies of homeowners have taken up their leaf blowers and rakes to remove all traces of leaves, put them in bags, and set them by the curb to be taken to the dump. Some have also raked or blown them into the street, but this is not permitted in most municipalities.  But, in recent years, an alternative plan of action has been gaining popularity: using this abundance to our advantage!

Dead leaves are chock-full of the same nutrients you pay $$ for come spring to get your yard looking green and lush (think carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus).  Fallen leaves also provide a cosy winter home for a variety of wildlife and help prevent weed growth in your yard. That said, too many leaves can lead to yellow spots in your grass, so read on for recommendations on how best to manage the situation.  

You have a few options when it comes to ecologically managing your leaf litter.  But, there is one important step before you undertake any other actions: pick up all the pet waste in your yard and dispose of it properly. Once that fun task is done, here’s a few ideas for what to do next.

When cleaning up your yard, please remember that leaves in the street spell trouble. When it rains, they clog up storm drains, creating extra work for busy DPW employees.  Additionally, when they decompose, they release nutrients that, when in abundance, can lead to algal blooms in nearby waterways

We hope this inspires you get outside and take advantage of all the Fall abundance that nature has to offer! 


The Nine Mile Run stream in Frick Park was the site of a $7.7 million, 100+ acre restoration that was managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers and completed in 2006.  In partnership with the City’s Department of Public Works, and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Watershed Association has monitored and stewarded the restoration since its completion.  Every year, through a variety of events and classes, we educate more than 500 children and adults about watershed ecology, native species, and water quality monitoring in this part of the park. Our volunteers regularly remove trash and invasive species from the stream and surrounding areas, and continue to plant native species.

Because the restored stream is in an urban area, it suffers from the ill effects of excessive stormwater runoff, including both the resulting sewer overflows, and the extreme volume and velocity of stormwater flows during every major rain event.  Over time this has resulted in serious damage to some portions of the restored area. In 2009, and again between 2015-2018, the Watershed Association raised money to complete needed repairs – more than $50,000 each time.  There is no doubt that future repairs will be needed.  The increase in the amount and intensity of rain guarantees that. But it is more difficult to find the needed funds each time.

An urban stream like Nine Mile Run is never going to be something can walk away from and consider “finished;” it will require continued investment to prevent a return to the degraded state it was in prior to the restoration. We believe it is worth continued effort and financial investment, because this large area of the park has been transformed from a dangerous eyesore into a beautiful oasis that is frequented by dog walkers, bikers, photographers, and all manner of nature lovers who are attracted by the greatly improved habitat.  It is a much loved oasis of wilderness in the city.

This is just one example among hundreds in the City’s park system of ongoing needs that are not being met by the amount of money the City is currently able to budget for park maintenance and capital projects. But many of those other examples are parks and parklets where there is no citizen group able to consistently raise funds for the work that needs to be done. For this reason, we are in support of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s campaign to pass a ballot initiative to secure an ongoing stream of funding to maintain and improve our parks.

The process leading up to this initiative has been very thorough. For more than a year, PPC has been gathering very detailed information about the needs of the 165 parks and parklets in the City, and conducting listening sessions in every part of the City to understand what Pittsburghers believe is needed. Public input has also been submitted online. Perhaps more important, they have also developed in impressive set of metrics to help prioritize how and where the funds raised will be spent; a primary goal is to insure that the funds raised will be equitably distributed and will benefit all of Pittsburgh’s residents.  All of this information is available to the public on their website; if you haven’t been able to make it to one of the listening sessions, it’s really worth spending some time on the site before you vote on November 5th.

Fundamentally, this ballot initiative offers us a choice. Do we want to have a first class park system that improves our quality of life and the city’s attractiveness as a place to live and work? If so, we need to find a dependable way to pay for it, so long-term plans can be made for improvements. We strongly support this approach because it asks those who already have an investment in the City to contribute just a little bit more each year to insure that all Pittsburghers can have the parks we deserve. I’ll be voting yes on Tuesday.

Brenda Lynn Smith

Executive Director


by John Lavaccare, Communications Intern, Nine Mile Run Watershed Association

Earlier this month I spent the day on an electrofishing trip through the Nine Mile Run stream led by two instructors from Duquesne University, Dr. Brady Porter and Dr. Beth Dakin. Electrofishing is an activity where scientists use an electric pole to temporarily stun fish, catalog the species and sizes of fish found, then release the fish back into the water. Electrofishing helps us understand the quality and health of the Nine Mile Run stream by learning more about the variety of fish that live in the stream.

Along with Dr. Porter and Dr. Dakin, there were 7 students on the trip from Duquesne University, Chatham University, and the University of Pittsburgh. The students included undergraduates, graduate students, and a postgraduate student. Some were there as part of a class assignment; Dr. Dakin said the assignment helps students understand “the amount of effort that lets us know things about ecosystems and fish communities”.

Others were there because they simply wanted to take part in the electrofishing activities. The students had various interests and knowledge levels about marine biology and ecology, and it seemed like everyone had an enjoyable and enriching experience.

One local community member joined us on the trip: Mike Koryak, a former member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who retired in 2004, and has served on the NMR Monitoring Committee since 2006. Mike said he was part of the original inspection project at this site, and he marveled at the progress the stream has made since the restoration project was completed in 2006.

“In so many ways, it’s been dramatic,” Mike said of NMR’s transformation. “It’s a long time coming.”

We started our electrofishing day in the lower part of the Nine Mile Run stream, near where it meets the Monongahela River. The process goes something like this: The person with the electric rod has a charge emanating from both the front of their pole and from a “rat tail” that hangs from the box on their back. While this is happening, participants with nets examine the areas where the electric rod and rat tail have been, collecting the stunned fish from the water and putting them in buckets to be sorted and counted later. If the stream is still electrified (which it is briefly after the rod has passed through it), they have to be careful not to get the exposed skin on their hands in the water. In addition, electrofishing participants wear waders, which are akin to rubber overalls connected to boots. They help protect the participants’ legs from water and from electrocution, so any holes in them could prove troublesome.

This first part of the process involved separating fish by species into buckets. Artificial bubbles were used to keep the water in the buckets oxygenated. In all, 11 species were catalogued during the first portion of the electrofishing process. Dr. Porter and Dr. Dakin were able to classify the fish on sight based on their spots, mouth placement, eyes, and other features. Cullen Hanes, an electrofishing participant and undergraduate student at Chatham who is interested in herpetology, or the study of amphibians, said he hopes to be able to identify amphibians in the way Dr. Porter can identify fish. “I tried to listen to him as best I could,” Cullen said. “I still, like, had to keep asking what type of fish this is.”

After the fish were sorted successfully, they needed to be counted, measured, and weighed before being released. In the first part of the stream, spotfin shiners (like the one above) were abundant, and the electrofishing team counted 199 of them in this portion of the stream. After the event, Dr. Porter said that spotfin shiners are a “pioneering species”, which means that it’s one of the first types of fish to break into more polluted areas. He said surveys like this one allow scientists to understand which species are pioneers.

This rainbow darter was found in the upper part of the NMR stream area we surveyed.

Though we were most interested in the fish, there were various other types of wildlife to be found about the stream, including two caterpillars like this, a crawfish, and even a bullfrog.

In all, Mike and Dr. Porter felt that this survey found fewer fish in the stream than in past years. They theorized that this might be because of the construction for the new bridge to the Duck Hollow neighborhood, which has caused the stream to be culverted underneath a gravel bridge in the middle of the area we surveyed. Dr. Porter theorized that transient species—those that come into the Nine Mile Run stream through the Monongahela River—are having difficulties making their way through the culverts to the upper part of the stream. Nine Mile Run Watershed Association has been and will continue to monitor the effects of this construction project.

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