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Nine Mile Run blog

11
Feb

This guest post was written by Rob Rossi, a graduate student in the department of Geology and Environmental Science at the University of Pittsburgh. He was a graduate summer intern of NMRWA in 2015.

Road salt is a common part of winter for many Pittsburgh residents.  In Pennsylvania, more than 840,000 tons of road salt (sodium chloride, or table salt) were applied to roadways between 2009 and 2014.  Although it helps keep our roads and sidewalks ice and snow free, road salt has unintended consequences.  Many people are familiar with the ever annoying winter problems of salt stained clothing or shoes/boots, but the environmental effects of road salt are less obvious.  Road salt can have numerous negative effects on the environment, such as increased fresh water and soil salinity, and less obvious effects, such as increased time necessary for rain to soak into the soil.  Additionally, when road salt dissolves in highway runoff, these waters have high total dissolved solids (TDS), which can flush roadside soil metals from clay particles  (see animated Figure 1).  Metals flushed by these reactions can include plant nutrients (e.g., potassium, calcium, magnesium) or toxic trace metals (e.g., arsenic, lead, cadmium).

Road salt exchange gif

Figure 1. Animation of a cation exchange reaction. Potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg) ions bound to soil clay particles are exchanged by sodium (Na) ions in solution. Mobilized metals are then released into the soil water, and ultimately the ground or surface water.

Road Salt Study in Nine Mile Run

Lysimeter Working

Figure 2. Lysimeters are plastic tubes with a ceramic cup. To collect a soil water sample, a scientist applies a vacuum (arrow) and the lysimeter sucks up soil water (dashed lines) like a straw.

Rob Rossi, a graduate student in the Department of Geology and Environmental Science at the University of Pittsburgh, has been researching the effects of road salt on roadside soils in Nine Mile Run.  Specifically, Rob has been analyzing soil and soil water chemistry in samples collected from three roadside soil water sampler “nests”.  Each nest is a group of four lysimeters which behave much like giant straws, sucking up soil water samples when a vacuum is applied to the end of the soil water sampler (see Figure 2).  The lysimeters collect soil water at roughly 6, 12, 24, and 36 inch depths along a hill slope perpendicular to I-376.

In the soil samples, soil sodium concentrations are highest in soils collected from near the road.  Soil sodium concentrations decrease with distance from the roadway, approaching values observed in the local bedrock (see Figure 3).  One theory is that high sodium concentrations can be attributed to the minerals breaking down in the bedrock but because sodium concentrations in roadside soils are much higher than sodium concentrations found in the bedrock, minerals in the bedrock breaking down is likely not what inputs sodium to these soils.  Instead, the application of road salt to I-376 is likely causing high sodium concentrations in roadside soils.

Sodium concentration chart

Figure 3. Sodium concentrations in the sampled top (black), mid (red), and bottom (grey) hillslope soils. The vertical dashed line indicates the average sodium concentration in local bedrock. Parts per million (ppm) is a measurement scientists use to describe the concentration of an element. In other words, if a bucket holding a total of 1 million marbles contained 100 ppm of blue marbles, 100 of those 1 million marbles would be blue marbles.

Sodium concentrations in sampled soil waters peak at different times throughout the year relative to the location along the hillslope (see Figure 4).  In particular, the earliest peaks in soil water sodium concentrations occur in the top hillslope soil waters in late February/early March in the intermediate depth (39 and 61 cm depth) soil waters.  Additionally, soil water samples from the deepest top hillslope nest have, in general, the highest sodium concentration.  While sodium concentrations spike in soil waters collected from all depths of the top hillslope nest station, soil water sodium concentrations peak only in deeper soil waters of the mid hillslope nest.  Moreover, the peak in soil water sodium concentrations at the mid hillslope nest do not peak at the same time as when soil water sodium concentrations peak at the top hillslope nest.

NaTime

Figure 4. Sodium concentrations in top (a), mid (b), and bottom (c) hillslope soil waters collected between October 2013 and November 2014. The light blue box indicates the time of the year when road salt is not applied to roadways.

These patterns in soil water sodium concentrations suggest that the way soil water flows in roadside soils influences the movement of sodium through these soils.  Specifically, because the deeper top hillslope lysimeters (i.e., 12, 24, and 36 inch) peak before the shallowest (i.e., 6 inch) lysimeter, high TDS waters likely interact with deeper soils first.  High TDS runoff from the highway is often observed to enter the soil column via infiltration (i.e., water percolating downwards through the soil), which produces a peak in sodium concentrations in the shallowest soil waters first.  However, because this pattern in soil water sodium concentrations is not observed in samples collected from the Nine Mile Run transect, sodium is potentially transported to deeper soils via lateral flow originating from leaking highway drains and water flow between bedrock layers.

Previous scientific studies have observed that sodium loadings to soils persist beyond the period when road salt is applied to roadways, and this relationship is also apparent at this study site.  Specifically, sodium persists as slow moving wave, where peaks in top hillslope soil water sodium concentrations occur within a month of when road salting ends, and peaks in soil water sodium concentrations at the mid and bottom hillslope stations occur later in the year.  Thus, the distance from the roadside affects when soil water sodium concentrations will peak, suggesting that sodium is relatively slowly released from roadside soils throughout the spring and summer.

How does road salt affect the water quality of Nine Mile Run?

The results of this study suggest that sodium and metals are continually flushed to stream waters throughout the year. When sodium levels are high, the ecosystem cannot physiologically maintain a salt balance, which affects aquatic organisms living in the stream – particularly plants and animals that are not adapted to high concentrations of ions, and therefore cannot regulate the water and salt content within their cells. This stress can change the diversity of species within the ecosystem. The increased metal loading could impair the stream ecosystem, negatively impacting aquatic life such as fish.  Some metals may be either beneficial or toxic, depending on their concentration. The primary mechanism for toxicity to organisms that live in streams is by absorption or uptake across the gills. The metals that are most toxic to aquatic organisms are Copper, Iron, Cadmium, Zinc, Mercury, and Lead.

I-376 Sodium runoff model

Figure 5. A conceptual model of how sodium travels through the hill slope soils next to I-376. The color of the arrows indicates the relative timing of when sodium is transported via this flowpath. Blue occurs in mid to late February, dark grey in early March, orange in early May, and red in early August.

Thus, it is likely that road salt application impacts soils down the hillside of I-376, and that the negative impacts of road salt application are not limited to the winter and early spring.

10
Dec

On a chilly Saturday morning in Swissvale, NMR staff and volunteers set out to plant a dozen trees in and around the Universal Academy of Pittsburgh. After enjoying hot coffee generously provided by Coffee Tree Roasters in Squirrel Hill, NMRWA’s very own tree expert, Jared Manzo, demonstrated the intricate process of preparing and planting young trees. Once trained, the volunteers and staff broke into teams to plant on the Academy grounds and on Hampton and Columbia Avenues.

Volunteers learn how to plant trees

The teams worked cooperatively to snugly plant each tree individually. This involved cutting twine off of the bundled branches, positioning the trees in the pits, and staking for support. Planting a tree is hard and diligent work but the volunteers rose to the task enthusiastically. By noon we were able to plant 12 trees which included Eastern white pine, tulip poplar, hophornbeam, and hawthorn.

A young tree waiting to be planted at the Unviersal Academy of Pittsburgh

A volunteer shows off her twine-cutting skills

Jared Manzo and two volunteers post with their newly planted tree

A volunteer poses with a young tree about to be planted

Volunteers planting trees on the side of the Academy grounds

Once the work was done and the teams returned to the Academy to enjoy a tasty lunch donated by Al’s Fish and Chicken and Veltre’s Pizza. The conversations continued as everyone basked in their hard work. The principal of the Academy, Ibrahim Yousef, and Al Aqra, Academy board member and owner of Al’s, expressed deep gratitude for the hard work from the volunteers. These 12 trees at the Academy and surrounding streets will be enjoyed by the generations of the school and neighborhood to come.

Newly planted trees

UPDATE (7/14/16) – We received the following message from Al Aqra, board member of the Universal Academy of Pittsburgh:

Nine Mile Run Watershed Association is leaving a great impact in the East End of Pittsburgh. NMRWA has been planting hundreds of trees in the watershed area where it had changed the landscape. On the 14th of November NMRWA and volunteers came to Universal Academy of Pittsburgh and planted 6 trees which will help with water preservation, beautify the school grounds, provide shade in the hot summer days, and add a colorful background to our school.

A tree planting event is such an educational opportunity to learn about Nine Mile Run, different types of trees, and a quick tutorial on how to plant and care for trees. Trees are very important part of our environment, landscape, and ecosystem, that’s why, we should plant more and care for existing ones.

On behalf on the Universal Academy of Pittsburgh’s community, parents, staff, students, and board of directors I would like to thank Nine Mile Run Watershed Association for their great work for the community and the environment. We look forward to working with Nine Mile Run Watershed Association on future possibilities such as Rain Gardens, Rainwater Management, and Educational opportunities for our students.

Al Aqra
Board of Directors
Universal Academy of Pittsburgh

09
Dec

Bright and early on a crisp Sunday morning, Jared Manzo, NMRWA’s GreenLinks Coordinator, guided participants on a tree identification walk through the lower section of Nine Mile Run. With rubber boots required, the first half of the walk traveled in or along the stream itself where no official trail exists.

Event participants crossing the stream. Jared Manzo talking to explaining leaf structure of a Boxelder.

Several species of trees were highlighted along the stream such as American sycamore, black willow, honey locust, silver maple, boxelder, common hackberry, and hardy catalpa. In a small patch of changing sugar maple, Jared explained what triggers dormancy in trees, the chemicals that produce fall color, and why leaves change color at all with the onset of dormancy.

A sugar maple slowly turning color.

Before moving back up to the Nine Mile Run Trail, Maranda Nemeth, NMRWA’s Restoration Stewardship Coordinator, took a moment to discuss a project along the run to allow fish to move further up stream. We returned to our starting point on Commercial Avenue by jumping onto the Nine Mile Run Trail. Some interesting species noted along the trail were staghorn sumac, black birch, sassafras, black gum, and bitternut hickory.

Overall, twenty-one tree species were identified. Tree identification focused on the most recognizable features of a given species to help distinguish it in the future. Leaf arrangement, simple leaves versus compound leaves, and the definition of a twig were discussed as well. Hot apple cider and muffins were great snacks given the chillier than usual October morning.

A medley of leaves fallen in Nine Mile Run.

If you are interested in tree identification, look out for walks in 2016 with NMRWA or Tree Pittsburgh! You can get started yourself by getting a guide such as Tree Finder: A Manual for Identification of Trees by Their Leaves or downloading Virginia Tech Tree ID app for your iPhone or Android device.

10
Nov

Volunteers and Nine Mile Run staff set out this past Saturday morning to weed and mulch over two dozen trees along the Port Authority’s Busway Linear Park along Edgewood Avenue in Swissvale. Armed with gloves, shovels, and wheelbarrows, the group got right to work improving the tree pits after a brief overview from NMR staff member Jared Manzo.

Volunteers receiving orientation from NMR staff member Jared Manzo.

The weather was chilly and traffic along the road was a bit intimidating but the volunteers were not deterred! Volunteers assiduously removed weeds that compete for soil nutrients, and spread mulch at an even depth making sure to pull a few inches back any mulch from around the trunks of the tree.

Two AmeriCorps volunteers digging for weeds.

Terry is helping to aerate the soil.

Board member Tim Ward going after the tough weeds!

NMR staff Mike Hiller and Nate Resnick-Day work on a tree pit together.

By the end of the event, we had tended 24 of the 28 maple trees. NMRWA staff finished the final four trees the following week. Thank you to Veltre’s Pizza in Swissvale and Coffee Tree Roasters in Squirrel Hill for the donated refreshments for volunteers.

NMRWA is extending their effort to benefit these trees by undertaking a tree pit expansion project. One of the greatest challenges for street trees is a lack of adequate soil volume. With Port Authority of Allegheny County’s permission, we are removing a strip of concrete to connect existing tree pits in pairs. Thirteen sites have been identified. Six will be completed in the remainder of 2015 with the other seven completed in 2016. The purpose of the project is to create more area for water infiltration and rooting space. Hopefully, this work will equate to larger, healthier, and longer lived trees.

These trees will get expanded tree pits in 2015 & 2016.

If you are interested in helping trees in Swissvale, we will be planting trees this coming Saturday, November 14th, 2015 along Columbia Avenue, Delaware Avenue, and the Universal Academy of Pittsburgh. This will be our last tree event of the year so please come out and help us finish strong!

Last NMR Tree event of 2015!

20
Oct

Last Saturday Nine Mile Run staff welcome a group of teen volunteers with Point Breeze New Church School to remove trash from Nine Mile Run, the stream in lower Frick Park. The group of staff, teachers, and students were taking part in the Youth Group Weekend. This group was unique as the teens traveled far from home, hailing from Oak Arbor, MI, Kempton, PA, Toronto, Canada, and Kitchener, Ontario.  One of the things their church teaches is the importance of service to your neighbors, so participating in community service projects is a critical aspect of their learning.

Point Breeze Church Group Weekend

Starting out on a chilly morning, the students gathered around to receive instructions, vests and tools from Nine Mile staff. The 47 teens were then divided into two groups with staff to start picking up debris at different points in the stream.

Youth Group teens off to pick trash

The students were energetic and excited to be there, talking about what they might find and who could collect the most trash. Once in the stream, small teams broke out and eagerly scanned for and picked up anything they could snag with their trash grabber sticks. Moving and filling bags quickly, the volunteers managed to fill 29 bags of trash in two hours. Among their interesting finds were some articles of clothing, a couple forks, and an expired credit card.

Two teens bag their latest litter find

NMR staff member Jared Manzo scans the stream for trash

This teen is carrying one of the 29 bags filled that day

Two teens work together to get trash out of the stream

After the trash bags were tied off the students, group leaders, and Nine Mile Run staff reconvened to enjoy hot chocolate, granola bars, and take some group photos.

Youth Group Weekend-NMR Streem Sweep participants

The work the youth group performed was vital to the health of Nine Mile Run. Stream sweeps help address the watershed’s core problems of urban waste flooding the stream with every storm event. By removing trash, the volunteers helped remove pollution in the stream, maintain a healthy and clean ecosystem for recreation and wildlife habitat, and reduce amount of trash that could have ultimately washed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Volunteer with Nine Mile Run!

If you are interested in volunteering with Nine Mile Run Watershed Association we have two events coming up on November 7th and 14th to plant and take care of trees in Swissvale. We hope to see you there! Sign up links are below.

Tree Care in Swissvale: Saturday, November 7th, 9:00am-12:00pm

Tree Planting in Swissvale: Saturday, November 14th, 9:30am-12:00pm

To inquire about arranging private group volunteer events please contact Maranda Nemeth at (412) 371-8779 ext. 123 or .

Nine Mile Run

This picture of Nine Mile Run is one of the most recent additions to our Instagram account. Click/tap the picture to see more of our snapshots in and around the stream!

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