Tess Wilson is a librarian in the field of health information who loves talking loudly about digital literacy, and online privacy. Beyond her library work, she is an arts educator, mentor trainer, beer advocate, and zine enthusiast. She’s a collector of many things, from small rocks to big books.
1. Tell me how you first got involved monitoring and Urban EcoStewards?
I think my first experience volunteering with NMRWA was during my AmeriCorps service year. I can’t remember what or where it was, but what I can remember is how eager I was to get more involved immediately! I signed up for the newsletter and started volunteering more regularly, which eventually led me to find out about becoming an EcoSteward. Having more regular interactions with the team put me on their radar, and allowed me a deeper understanding of what exactly NMRWA does. I must have visibly perked up when I heard about the opportunity to join staff on monitoring trips, because before I knew it I was pulling on my waterproof boots!
2. What’s your first memory of the Nine Mile Run Stream?
Since I moved from Kansas to Pittsburgh in 2013, I’ve steadily migrated east. First Squirrel Hill, then Wilkinsburg, a stint in Regent Square, and now I’ve settled down in Swissvale. Throughout these moves, I’ve maintained close proximity to Frick Park. My dog and I regularly take long sunny strolls down those trails, so the park is inextricably linked to my life in this city! It’s hard to say what my first memory of the stream is. But I do know every time I see it, it makes me feel extremely lucky to live so close to such a lush green space.
3. What do you wish other people knew about restoration or monitoring?
Monitoring puts you in conversation with the stream. It gives you the chance to mark changes over time, witness the seasons through a different lens, and understand more deeply how the stream connects our tiny pocket of the world to even larger ecological conversations. I’m a big proponent of participating in citizen science, as I believe that kind of work brings people closer to the environment. Also, not for nothing, it’s a really fun way to break up a week!
4. What’s it like to be an Urban EcoSteward?
It’s exciting to feel ownership over something that plays such an important role in the lives of our community of critters (people and otherwise). Clearing out invasive plants from your corner of the park adds a visceral element to volunteering, and helps you get even more acquainted with the local ecosystem.
5. When was the last time that you volunteered? How did it make you feel?
I helped with monthly stream monitoring in January. It was still pretty cold out, so it made for a brisk morning! Starting the year off with that familiar routine was energizing and grounding.
6. What keeps you engaged?
Advocating for my community is important to me. (In fact, it’s one of the many reasons I love being a librarian!) Volunteering with NMRWA gives me a chance to take local action in a tangible way.
Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) describes stormwater management solutions that use natural features, including plants and natural areas, to help collect stormwater before it gets into our sewers and leads to combined sewer overflows. (For more basic info on GSI, this Ted Talk is a helpful resource.) GSI is a vital component of a sustainable future for any metropolitan area, and building and promoting it is one of our primary missions at Nine Mile Run Watershed Association.
Even if GSI’s impacts were only in the realm of stormwater retention, GSI projects would be a valuable investment for cities; it doesn’t make sense to treat large quantities of rain at our sewage treatment plants. However, GSI has other important benefits: it beautifies cities, and has the potential to enhance public health. A 2017 literature review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that green space in cities has been correlated with a number of positive health and wellness outcomes.
The alternative to GSI is gray infrastructure. Often, this means the construction of concrete, underground tunnels to contain combined sewer overflows.
In the consent decree it signed with the EPA last year, ALCOSAN detailed a plan to build much more gray infrastructure, coupled with a small investment in GSI. At our Water Talk last November, RAND policy researcher Jordan Fischbach explained that ALCOSAN and the EPA based their plan on precipitation levels from 2003. After two consecutive years of precipitation levels among the highest in Pittsburgh’s recorded history, we’re faced with the disturbing possibility that the new gray infrastructure will be outdated from its inception.
Chicago, Illinois offers a warning of what could come if the city continues down its path of putting gray infrastructure first. Instead of incorporating GSI into its plans, Chicago spent the past two generations constructing a 109-mile gray infrastructure network called the “Deep Tunnel” to handle the Chicago area’s sewage overflows. The result is an infrastructure network that, despite its positive impact on the city’s river ecosystem, has had a difficult time keeping pace with the increased precipitation brought about by climate change, as described in a Slate article.
Other metropolitan areas have made significant investments in green stormwater infrastructure that we think Pittsburgh and Allegheny County would be wise to make note of. Here are just three out of many examples:
New Orleans, Louisiana
As former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu pointed out in the city’s 2015 “Resilient New Orleans” manifesto, New Orleans has faced numerous catastrophic storms in the 21st century. It’s no surprise that they’re forging sustainable solutions to stormwater management.
The city included GSI in the Resilient New Orleans plan, and its 12-step plan to make its Gentilly neighborhood into a “Resilience District” prominently features green infrastructure. The Mirabeau Water Garden, a component of the Gentilly plan, is a prime example of the potential benefits of GSI.
The project takes advantage of a 25-acre plot of land—roughly equivalent to the land area of the New Orleans Saints’ football stadium and adjacent parking lot, according to a 2017 presentation on the city’s website. For the most part, this plot of land is already a green space, but the city’s plan will develop it with a specific eye towards stormwater management. To view images of the project’s proposed design, visit this article from Dezeen.
The land will be developed with plenty of vegetation and features such as bioswales for stormwater management. It will act as a community resource in two ways: it will help with stormwater uptake during wet weather, and it will act as a public park during dry weather.
Environmental justice is an important component of any GSI program, as low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately likely to face negative environmental impacts (even the Trump Administration’s EPA has admitted as much, though that same EPA has dismantled regulations that could help deal with environmental justice issues.) A recent study found that at least some of Portland’s GSI is well-distributed in low-income communities and communities of color.
Portland’s GSI initiatives date back at least to the 1990s, when Cornerstone Projects (which included some green components) helped the city construct a smaller gray infrastructure network than it might have otherwise, according to a video released by the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services. One of the four cornerstone projects was the city’s Downspout Disconnection Program, established in 1993, which encourages homeowners to divert their gutters from storm sewers.
Portland has worked on numerous other GSI initiatives over the years, including the significant “Grey-to-Green Initiative” from 2008-2013, which inspired a 2017 study published in the Journal of Sustainable Water in the Built Environment.
That study assessed the locations of Portland’s green streets and green roofs installed during the Grey-to-Green Initiative. The study found that “green stormwater infrastructure in Portland has actually been placed in areas that have more minority groups and in which residents have lower economic and education standings”, particularly in the case of green streets. This means that the benefits of Portland’s GSI go to the neighborhoods where they are likely to be most needed.
Our fellow Pennsylvanians in Philly resolved their own EPA consent order by committing to GSI, rather than by building tunnels. (They had a consent order, not a consent decree like Pittsburgh has, which made things a little easier for them.) Philadelphia has a robust green infrastructure plan called “Green City, Clean Waters”, as described in a comprehensive article from Yale University’s Environment360. This $2.4 billion plan (much cheaper than the $9.6 billion tunnel network the city considered) makes green stormwater infrastructure the centerpiece of Philadelphia’s long-term stormwater management plan.
As of 2018, Philadelphia had “greened” more than 1,000 acres of the city, including both public and private land, according to Yale E360. This means that each of these acres of land can now handle up to one inch of precipitation on its own.
According to Yale E360, “the green infrastructure already is exceeding targets for stormwater overflow reduction, cutting that volume by 1.7 billion gallons — nearly three times the original projection.”
The bottom line for Pittsburgh
In an era of worldwide climate change, innovative stormwater management solutions are vitally important. Green stormwater infrastructure is a solution for stormwater management that can cut costs and add supplementary benefits that gray infrastructure can’t offer.
Pittsburgh can follow the Chicago model and focus on building costly tunnels that may quickly become outdated, and don’t offer supplementary benefits to citizens. Or it can follow a forward-looking route that incorporates green infrastructure and environmental justice, modeled after New Orleans, Portland, Philadelphia, and other cities. We’re hoping for the latter.
By John Lavaccare, communications intern
We are asking for your help. As of right now, we are still able to purchase and distribute small yard trees through our Citizen Tree Project, and we are encouraging people to sign up to plant a tree in their own yards where they can do so without risk of spreading or contracting coronavirus through the community.
COVID-19 has brought our region, our state, and our country to a standstill, but the natural world continues to move forward for better and for worse. We’ve seen changes like decreased air pollution in China, clearer water in Venice, and other marginal improvements to the human-environmental interface. But this virus has also brought social, and physical distancing necessary to slow the spread of disease. Unfortunately, it’s hard to take the necessary steps to improve certain aspects of our watershed from the confines of our home offices. This spring we had scheduled multiple tree care events including tree plantings. Other events like the stream sweep were also cancelled and we are facing a reality of several more months with little or no hands-on environmental action as a community. Still, it’s a great time to take environmental action independently.
Tree planting events will likely be pushed to the Fall, since summer is not a good time to plant large trees , however, we are uncertain about whether we’ll be able to double our planting capacity in the Fall to compensate for the lack of events this Spring. As mentioned before, the natural world isn’t slowing down. Our canopy is still aging and decreasing, and we can’t afford to lose time in reversing that trend. The 20-30 street trees we’ve been unable to plant this Spring could have provided a tenth of an acre of canopy coverage in ten years, and a quarter of an acre in twenty years. Marginal, but vitally important progress for our watershed urban forest.
We are working on recording a shortened version of our workshop and filming a planting “how to” video to train interested participants. Additionally, we are working on ways to distribute trees and offer planting support in the safest manner possible. Options include drop-offs similar to food delivery, or registration for a pick-up time at our office. We will also be rolling out additional guidance on actions you can take from your own homes to help us restore and protect the Nine Mile Run watershed urban forest and ecosystem in the coming weeks.
We recognize that this is not an easy time financially and are waiving the modest fee in favor of donations. If you can give, we appreciate your financial support, but most important is that you continue to help us achieve our goals of reversing canopy decline and moving towards canopy gains in the future. And if you don’t feel like you can plant a tree, why not check out our self-guided tree walk through Regent Square on your next socially-distanced walk.
Registrations can be completed here: https://forms.gle/MuryhYuHr99QJqxJ8