As the executive director of the Nine Mile Watershed Association, Brenda Lynn Smith isn’t one to go with the flow.
Smith, along with a nine-person staff, members and volunteers, is taking a proactive approach to preserving the ecology of the 6.5-square-mile area and mitigating stormwater runoff from surrounding communities. Now, as the Wilkinsburg-based organization celebrates its 20th anniversary, it’s being rebranded as UpstreamPgh.
“As we celebrate our organization’s 20th anniversary, we look forward to the impact our work will have in the next 20 years and beyond. You could say we’ve always been thinking and planning upstream. Now we’re just formalizing it,” says Smith, who joined the organization in 2008.
“While the scope of our work has expanded — providing engagement, advocacy and sustainable stormwater management solutions across the region — Nine Mile Run is still very much at the heart of all that we do.”
The organization started in 2001 to restore Nine Mile Run, which flows through Frick Park. About two-thirds of the waterway is underground, capturing rain that falls on Swissvale, Edgewood, Wilkinsburg, East Hills, Point Breeze, the eastern half of Homewood and parts of Squirrel Hill.
In 2006, the $7.7 million Nine Mile Run Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration was completed. Since then, the organization has been monitoring the water quality in three different sites along the stream every month, checking pH levels, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, and bacterial content — including e-coli and total fecal coliforms. While the water quality has improved, there is still work to be done.
Through education and advocacy, UpstreamPgh is making people realize that their actions affect water quality.
Problems originate in the upper watershed communities. Stormwater runoff is carrying pollutants and trash to the stream through storm sewers, which causes sewers to overflow. More than 75 percent of collected trash consists of food wrappers and bottles. During powerful rain events, the turbulent water damages stream banks and disrupts aquatic life.
From 2004 to 2011, the Nine Mile Watershed Association distributed 1,500 133-gallon rain barrels to homes throughout the watershed. The first 500 were funded via grants; another 1,000 homeowners paid $100 each to have their barrel installed. About 100 barrels have been added since then, along with the installation of native landscaping and rain gardens within and surrounding the watershed. All of these efforts reduce the amount of water entering Nine Mile Run.
With Pittsburgh averaging 38 inches of rain per year, Smith says it takes a lot of barrels to make a measurable difference. So UpstreamPgh is focusing on large-scale, green stormwater infrastructure projects.
Earlier this year, the organization was awarded a grant of $581,589 through the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Growing Greener Plus program for its Wilkinsburg Stormwater Resiliency Project. Planning and community outreach for the project will be completed this year, with construction slated to being in 2022. Growing Greener is the largest single investment of state funds in Pennsylvania’s history to address critical environmental concerns; this year, more than $34 million was awarded across the state.
Additional initiatives include environmental education, community engagement, climate equity, municipal engagement, data analysis, urban forestry, participation in the Our Water campaign and continued stewardship of Nine Mile Run.
The public can help by purchasing a rain barrel, becoming an UpstreamPgh member, volunteering to remove litter and invasive plants from Frick Park and planting native flora. Volunteers with the Urban EcoStewards program adopt a specific section of parkland to maintain and receive training from Rose Flowers, UpstreamPgh’s community engagement manager. Stewards commit to a minimum of one site visit per year, but most complete at least two or three visits.
Smith, who lives near Frick Park, says the largest part of UpstreamPgh’s income comes from grants, member donations, corporate sponsors and fees from their service work.
Dancing Gnome, a brewery on Main Street in Sharpsburg, is raising money for the organization through its yearlong Watershed Series. A new beer will be released each month with a portion of the proceeds going to UpsteamPgh.
“Our new brand echoes the forward-thinking nature of our work,” says Heather Dodson, president of UpstreamPgh’s board of directors. “So, while we recognize the heritage of our past, we are incredibly excited about the impact we can make tomorrow.”