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Mending the Terrible Mess We Make of Things

Oh, if we were all given $7.7 million and an army of engineers to mend the terrible mess we make of things.

That’s what repaired Nine Mile Run, a 6.5 square-mile watershed located in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and centered upon a rambling, mostly covered and culverted stream that eventually leads to the Monongahela River, which flows into the Ohio, which flows into the Mississippi. Years ago, the watershed contained farms, a few natural gas wells, even a golf course. Then a growing, stee

l-boom population washed tons of garbage down Nine Mile Run, even sewage, and they hemmed the creek in with cement and dense construction. But in 2006, the US Army Corps of Engineers completed a three-year, $7.7 million restoration, clearing up much of the mess that Pittsburghers had made of the watershed.

To the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, “rain is a festival,” a grace to be celebrated in its “gratuity and meaninglessness.” But rain roils. Over the last couple of centuries, fully one-third of the watershed became covered by impervious surfaces that don’t absorb Merton’s festival of wet, but instead cast so much of that water into storm drains, taking with it detritus and road salt and lawn chemicals. And when heavy rains surge, Pittsburgh’s aging sewage system flushes excrement into this waterway. Meanwhile, over a forty-year period steel producers piled slag, that stony matter left over after ore-purification, into a 20-story mound at the creek’s end, described by some as a “gruesome moonscape.”

The writer Annie Dillard is partially to blame for this mess. Her American Childhood was spent in the neighborhood of Point Breeze, at the heart of the watershed. There she played in the rain, washed dishes, showered – sluicing her greywater and blackwater into city pipes and waterways, before she meandered her way to Tinker Creek, and along floated a Pulitzer.

But even before Dillard, folks knew the new-and-improved isn’t always better than old-growth organic. In 1910, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., son of the famous architect of New York City’s Central Park, submitted a watershed report to the City of Pittsburgh, noting that, “[Nine Mile Run’s] stream, when it is freed from sewage, will be an attractive and interesting element in the landscape; the wooded slopes on either side give ample opportunity for enjoyment of the forest, for shaded walks, and cool resting places.” So, finally, after generations of neglect, the US Army Corps of Engineers reconfigured the stream and streambed, established wetlands, replanted native bushes, wildflowers, and trees.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard writes, “It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale.”

For centuries, Nine Mile has run every day and every night, yet new every minute. Now, each passing minute fosters healing and growth and life.

Green sunfish and creek chub and midges – and even beaver – have returned to the creek. Watershed residents have planted hundreds of additional trees and installed rain barrels and rain gardens that mitigate much of the rainwater runoff. Wetlands proliferate. On that slag moonscape, they built a slaggarden (dousing the manmade mountain with well-seeded soil and mulch, until up sprang nature), and then atop that they built luxury homes. Just recently in Duck Hollow, where Nine Mile Run confluences with the Mon River, a birder recorded a common goldeneye and hooded merganser ducks.

Some tout Nine Mile Run as the most successful urban stream restoration ever achieved in the United States. Turns out, though, that even before the engineers and all that cash, an ecosystem of people – artists, developers, city officials, botanists, architects, neighborhood groups – came together to plan, design, and inspire others. It took many years and a community – an ecosystem – of believers with a vision for reclamation to bring about new life.

Oh, if we all had such an ecosystem and vision for redeeming the mess we make of things.

Photos courtesy of UpstreamPgh Originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of geez


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