Posts Tagged ‘Pittsburgh


Air quality has an important impact on our community, and the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association is concerned about both the recent poor air quality events in the Monongahela River valley, and larger trends in Greater Pittsburgh on this issue.

In late December 2019, air quality in the Pittsburgh area took a nosedive. At the Liberty air quality monitor in the Mon Valley, not too far from the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works, levels of pollutants rose above regulatory limits for several consecutive days. At Pittsburgh International Airport in Moon Township, dozens of flights were canceled—at the peak of the holiday season, no less. PurpleAir’s air quality monitors showed poor air quality in the city, too. As Christine Brill of Lawrenceville Clean Air Now points out, residents were not immediately alerted about the situation, compounding the problem.

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December’s pollution event was the result of a temperature inversion—an event where air near ground level was warmer than air higher in the atmosphere, the inverse of the usual pattern. When this happens, pollution is unable to rise into the atmosphere with hot air in the way it usually does. Temperature inversions are likely becoming more common due to climate change, and the valleys of Western Pennsylvania are particularly susceptible to them. These events have plagued our region for generations—see the example of 1948’s Donora smog incident, a deadly pollution event that included a temperature inversion.

On January 10, 2020, a number of Pittsburgh-based environmental organizations held a Clean Air Rally (pictured above) at the Pittsburgh city-county building to protest this concerning holiday event. After the rally, dozens of people—including our Executive Director, Brenda Smith—spoke out during public comment at an Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) meeting that afternoon.

A month later, the ACHD levied fines totaling $2.7 million, as well as additional penalties, on U.S. Steel for excessive pollution, settling a dispute dating back to 2019. The ACHD says it is developing further regulations on major polluters specifically focused on events similar to what happened in December.

We think it’s vital that the ACHD use their regulatory power in the case of another temperature inversion to require polluters to reduce their emissions during these sensitive events. Brill referenced a statute that could allow the ACHD to regulate pollution during temperature inversions without passing new legislation.

At the same time, the temperature inversion events and corresponding pollution have continued; the state Department of Environmental Protection placed 7 Western Pennsylvania counties, including Allegheny, under a poor air quality alert on January 23. (The same sort of alert had been issued during part of the holiday inversion about a month earlier, on December 24-25).

Air quality is vitally important to our region. There are a number of our nonprofit partners who work specifically on this issue. For more information on local air quality, we’d send you to our friends at GASP and Breathe Project, among other local organizations working on the issue. 

As a watershed association, we’re naturally concerned about air pollution’s effect on our watershed. In a process called atmospheric deposition, air pollutants make their way to the ground and into waterways, either falling on their own or being carried by precipitation.

Nitrogen is one important pollutant that travels into waterways by atmospheric deposition, and it can have a destructive effect on waterway wildlife. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program:

“Excess nitrogen can fuel the growth of algae blooms, which can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life.”

University of Pittsburgh Ph.D. student Becky Forgrave has studied atmospheric deposition in Nine Mile Run. Forgrave summarized air pollution’s effect on pollution in NMR:

“…While there is definite evidence of atmospheric pollution in NMR, I think the major issues at this time are still mostly sewage and flooding related.” 

(Forgrave, personal communication)

In 2014, a lab colleague of Forgrave conducted a study on the sources of nitrogen in Nine Mile Run. During storms, they found that roughly one-third of nitrate pollution in NMR came from atmospheric deposition, compared to two-thirds from sewage. During dry times, nearly all nitrate inputs came from sewage.

While it may not be the most salient threat to our stream, atmospheric deposition is still an issue to pay close attention to in the Greater Pittsburgh area. Forgrave referenced a 2019 meta-analysis of studies on urban nitrogen deposition, which found that urban areas are “subject to higher rates of N deposition than nearby rural areas”. This finding implies that Greater Pittsburgh, like other urban areas, could be especially susceptible to nitrogen deposition concerns. 

Increases in precipitation brought on by climate change are making atmospheric deposition an even more important issue. A study from the Carnegie Institution for Science reviewed nitrogen deposition levels in comparison with climate data over time. The overpowering nature of climate’s effect on deposition is reflected in the study’s result in the Great Lakes, where “despite efforts to reduce the amount of nitrogen released by human activity, precipitation increased so much that nitrogen still overloaded the water system”, according to an article about the study (linked above). The additional risks for nitrogen deposition posed by climate change make it all the more imperative that we do what we can to reduce pollution levels. 

Though air quality isn’t the most important issue facing Nine Mile Run, it’s an issue that any environmentalist in Greater Pittsburgh should pay attention to—particularly considering the industrial pollution that has shaped our region. You may have heard about the Google engineer who told Public Source he plans to leave Pittsburgh due to air pollution. In response to that article, Carnegie Mellon professor Noah Theriault penned an opposing op-ed—saying that, yes, Pittsburgh is imperfect, but rather than leave at the first sign of difficulty, we can work together to make it better. The Nine Mile Run Watershed Association isn’t going anywhere, and we plan to be part of that work.

If you want to check local air quality levels and get directly involved, Purple Air has sensors across the region, Smell Pittsburgh features user-reported smell information, and AirNow.gov offers official government data.

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! 


As you may have seen in our Spring newsletter, since 2013 we have been working with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (PPC) on a grant received from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Program. One of the goals of our partnership on this grant was to develop a culture of stewardship for the Nine Mile Run watershed by engaging a wide range of ages in citizen science and stewardship activities. One way we approached this was to implement PPC’s Mission Ground Truth (MGT) program at Wilkinsburg Middle School.

MGT is an interdisciplinary ecosystem assessment program mapped to PA state academic standards for 7th and 8th grade students that includes in-class discovery activities as well as a field trip to Frick Park. During the field trip, students get to be ecologists for the day, and have the opportunity to use the same tools and sampling methods that scientists use to evaluate the health of forest and stream ecosystems.

Recently, NMRWA staff worked for two days in Frick Park with Environmental Educators from PPC to help lead the Wilkinsburg Middle School students through the field day programming.

Jared, Mike, & the students get ready for a leaf race!

Jared, Mike, & the students get ready for a leaf race!

We began each morning by discussing goals for the day, then broke into small groups. During the morning session, the groups each explored a section of the Fern Hollow stream while discussing questions such as “how can ecologists detect and measure pollution in a stream?” and “what benefits do humans and animals get from streams?” Then the students recorded data on physical and chemical water quality characteristics, such as temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, and velocity. Next, we explored the benthic macroinvertebrate populations by carefully overturning rocks and collecting samples using a net. To wrap up, we would discuss how everything tied together by asking questions like “based on the data we collected, is the stream healthy or unhealthy?“and “how does the quality of Fern Hollow affect the health of Nine Mile Run?

Mike & a student measure the diameter of a tree.

Mike & a student measure the diameter of a tree.

After a break for lunch, the students got to venture into the forest for a deeper look at the complex forest ecology present in Frick Park. We identified different tree and plant species and talked about the various ecosystem services that forests provide to animals, streams, and people. We asked questions like “why is biodiversity important in forests?” and “how is the health of this forest related to the health of Fern Hollow and Nine Mile Run?” Then the students used forestry tools to collect data on the location, size, and type of trees, and we looked for evidence of Asian long-horned beetles. To wrap up, we asked questions similar to the morning session, like “is this section of the forest healthy or unhealthy?

Over the course of the two days, we had a wonderful & enriching experience working with the students and with the PPC staff. Thank you to Mike, Taiji, Steve, and Chelsea for their expertise & enthusiasm in implementing the MGT programming!


For the past two years, NMRWA has been working with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (PPC) to increase the environmental stewardship capacity of our watershed community. Funding for this work was provided by a grant received from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Program. Maybe you read about this in our recently released Spring newsletter?

Yesterday, as a part this program, NMRWA staff co-led a training workshop for Urban EcoStewards on streamflow monitoring in Nine Mile Run. Along with Sarah Lavin, a graduate student in the Department of Geology and Planetary Science at the University of Pittsburgh, Sara Powell & Paul Yanulavich spent a sunny Sunday morning working with eight volunteers to measure streamflow and take cross-section measurements of the stream.

It is important for us to understand streamflow patterns and how the stream channel is changing in Nine Mile Run, both for continued restoration efforts in Frick Park (e.g., erosion remediation), and also so we can assess how well management efforts in the upper watershed (e.g., green stormwater infrastructure, rain barrels) are reducing excess stormwater flows into the stream.

Unfortunately, continuous monitoring of discharge (the volume of water flowing through the stream during a unit of time) is complex and expensive. Instead, since last summer, we have been working with Urban EcoSteward (UES) volunteers to help us collect data that will allow us to create something called a stage-discharge rating curve.

This curve will allow us to ‘reconstruct’ a continuous discharge record – giving us a much better understanding of streamflow in Nine Mile Run!

So, at Sunday’s training, we demonstrated how UES volunteers can measure the stream’s velocity and cross-sectional area – two critical pieces to calculating discharge. We then used similar methods to measure the stream channel geometry.

The geometry of the channel is also important to understand, because storms can cause large volumes of water to surge rapidly through Nine Mile Run, changing the stream channel shape very quickly. These changes, whether they are due to erosion or damage to built rock features, put our restoration efforts at risk. Regular cross-section measurements will allow us to look at how the shape of the stream channel is changing over time, and to apply necessary management efforts as needed.

Thank you so much to all the Urban EcoStewards and interested volunteers for coming out on Sunday! We will be posting more photos from the day on our Facebook page, so make sure to check them out!

If you are interested in becoming an Urban EcoSteward, click here for more information or email .



Today’s blog post comes from the Clean Rivers Campaign – an education & advocacy program designed to raise awareness of the stormwater runoff and sewage overflow issues in Allegheny County. NMRWA is one of the CRC’s six founding organizations. Last week, NMRWA staff participated in the Clean Rivers Campaign’s actions which explained Pittsburgh’s need for a CAP to ALCOSAN.

CRC Gets A Win Towards CAP!

The Clean Rivers Campaign had a big week last week. On Monday, March 23rd, campaign supporters gathered in Market Square downtown to seek petition signatures asking ALCOSAN to create a Customer Assistance Program (CAP). A CAP would protect our low and fixed income neighbors who will be affected most by rate increases. Thanks to the action downtown and other canvassing efforts, CRC collected over 2,000 signatures on the petition.

On March 26th, CRC continued efforts to create a CAP. Arriving at ALCOSAN, supporters had assembled all of the petition signatures into a banner showing the strong support from the community. As ALCOSAN Board members arrived for their meeting, chants began, “We Need A CAP!”. Supporters then attended the Board Meeting where they heard Chairman John Weinstein announce the creation of a subcommittee which will work with ALCOSAN staff to create a CAP. This is the first step in creating a CAP program but, it’s not a done deal!

This is a great victory for the Clean Rivers Campaign!  But we still have a lot to do in creating a green first plan and ensuring the implementation of a CAP to protect our most vulnerable neighbors.

Thank you to everyone who joined us for our actions and who signed our petition! Below is the media coverage of our two actions and our win:

Activists Call On Alcosan to Create Customer Assistance Program for Low-Income Residents

Coalition says people need help to pay increasing sewer bills

Sanitary Authority Overhaul Expected To Take Toll On Low-Income

Clean Rivers Campiagn Seeks Customer Assistance Program KDKA(Video)

Clean Rivers Campaign seeks customer assistance program WTAE (Video)

KDKA Radio Story

ALCOSAN Creates Subcommittee to Develop Customer Assistance Program

Municipalities Receive Extension to Pursue Green Infrastructure

The Clean Rivers Campaign has been educating consumers and urging ALCOSAN and regional leaders to adopt a green first approach to solving our sewer overflow problem since 2011.  This approach is the only one that takes ratepayer money and returns not only clean rivers but community benefits like green spaces, reduced flooding, jobs, and other community improvements.  Monday’s announcement by the DEP is an important step towards ensuring ratepayer dollars are invested in communities, not simply buried under our rivers.

We are pleased that the DEP is taking such an active role in promoting green infrastructure in our region.  Requiring municipalities to complete green plans in exchange for an extension on their consent orders is a great first step. But now we must ensure that those plans are coordinated and we must pursue a regional green infrastructure assessment.  That coordination and cooperation will allow our region to create a plan that places green infrastructure strategically and effectively rather than just municipality by municipality.  A coordinated approach will yield a plan that maximizes green infrastructure for flow reduction, brings our region the best water quality, most community benefits, and most cost effective solutions by allowing us to rightsize our gray infrastructure.

Mayor Peduto and County Executive Fitzgerald have been great advocates of green infrastructure in this endeavor, and we praise their leadership.  In other cities and regions where green plans are underway, visionary leadership, both political and within the authority, has been critical to successful planning and implementation of sustainable wet weather controls.  Without leadership, our region will miss out on an opportunity to use this largest ever public works investment to the benefit of both our water quality and our communities.   With the Mayor and County Executive’s leadership and the DEP’s support, we have made important progress toward greening our plan, now we must coordinate as a region, identify world-class leaders for our plan, and move forward.

Below is the media coverage of the DEP extension:

Peduto, County Officials Seek ‘Green’ Solution To Water & Sewer

Local officials ask for more time for ALCOSAN fix KDKA (Video)

Pittsburgh, Allegheny County plead for more time to plan sewer overflow compliance

Pittsburgh, Allegheny County scramble to prepare for sewage upgrade

Stay on track: It’s important to push forward on sewer upgrades

DEP gives Alcosan customer municipalities more time to deal with sewage overflows

Also appears in:
My Informs
Waste Water Infrastructure News
World News

DEP grants 18-month extension on stormwater control effort

State gives extension to add ‘green’ solutions to sewer woes

DEP Extends Alcosan’s Wastewater Overflow Order To Pursue Green Infrastructure

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