Editor’s note: The following photos were taken during a free educational community kayaking session with the Three Rivers Waterkeeper group. Due to heavy rain, all photos were taken with disposable waterproof cameras. The film was scanned and the color was adjusted during editing to remove too much of a blue tone in the photos.
About 50 years ago, Marla Jonas remembers skiing the Allegheny River – dodging the “scum” as she skimmed the surface.
“There was a lot of debris in the water that didn’t belong there. It was not natural debris,” she said.
Earlier this month, Fox Chapel resident Jonas met a group of 10 other people at the Deer Creek boat launch along the Allegheny River in Harmar Township. They met for a free kayaking session hosted by Three Rivers Waterkeeper, with kayaks provided by Venture Outdoors.
The event was a training session for community members interested in learning how to spot and report river pollution. Although this is the latest in a series of similar kayaking and hiking events this summer, Three Rivers Waterkeeper is hosting other educational events in the fall.
On this Saturday morning, it rained.
Sheltered in the trunk of her SUV, Jess Friss’ eyes followed a puddle of water flowing through the parking lot. A water advocate for Three Rivers Waterkeeper, Friss explained that motor oil and gasoline from the nearby road can spill into the river when it rains, especially when there isn’t enough water. grass to absorb runoff.
The group first headed for Hulton Bridge and stopped at the mouth of Guys Run. In May, three cars derailed there, leaking oil and plastic pellets into the water. To prevent the spill from reaching the river, oil-absorbing containment barriers, called “dams”, were installed at the entrance to the runway.
Evan Clark, a water guardian with Three Rivers Waterkeeper, said that while the dams are effective, he believes the oil has seeped into the surrounding ground and will flow from there into the river.” for a long time”.
With the rain gone, the group left the kayaks and waded out under cool skies, discussing other dangers threatening Pittsburgh-area rivers. For Clark, one of the “big ones” is combined sewage overflows (CSOs) – which spurt rainwater combined with sewage into rivers.
Usually, combined sewer systems carry wastewater to wastewater treatment facilities. However, Clark said rains can create excess water that exceeds the sewage system’s handling capacity, forcing untreated sewage directly into rivers.
Friss sees CSOs as an example of “how unprepared we are for climate change and weather changes in the future.”
Clark said the combined sewage systems “were not designed to keep sewage out of the rivers”. Rather, they were designed to keep sewage “off the streets”.
To address this issue, the Allegheny County Health Authority [ALCOSAN] plans to invest $2 billion in a clean water plan that aims to eliminate sanitary sewage overflows and significantly reduce unit sewage overflows by 2036.
The rivers, once lined with factories and mills, were a hotbed of pollution. During the summer months, thermal pollution from steel mills made life in the rivers almost unsustainable. According to Clark, the Monongahela was a “dead river” or nearly before the collapse of Pittsburgh’s steel industry.
Today, nearly 50 years after the Clean Water Act was passed, rivers are able to support a growing population of more than 70 species of fish and “top predators” like bald eagles, Clark said. . Although the rivers are in a healthier state than they have been in over 100 years, Clark said he often encounters people who think the water is “much worse off than it is. actually was.”
“It became very clear to me that our relationship with the rivers is, sometimes, a bit stuck in the past,” he said, adding that “episodically” and “consciously” swimming and eating fish in rivers is harmless.
Laughing, he said, “there won’t just be those poisonous three-eyed monsters we’ll get out of here.”
To find out when it’s okay to swim in the rivers, Clark recommended ALCOSAN’s daily email and text alerts.
Anglers should refer to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Health Advisory on Fish Consumption for information on how to properly clean and butcher caught fish – and which fish to avoid.
Through his work, Clark said he hopes to deepen the wider community’s connection and understanding of rivers.
Before kayaking with Three Rivers Waterkeeper, Jonas said she didn’t know how much the rivers had gotten better, only that they had gotten better. For her, a noticeable change from her days skiing was the smell.
At the time, she says, “we stopped at the factory here,” referring to a nearby sewage treatment facility, and “I could smell the waste coming out of it. It didn’t smell so good for me there.
“The smell is much better now.”
Currently, Three Rivers Waterkeeper staff are keeping tabs on the Shell ethylene cracker, which is expected to begin operating in the fall along the Ohio River in Potter Township. Although Clark said it “remains to be seen what effect this plant will have directly on the water”, the plant is “cleared to be a significant polluter in our area”.
Founded in 2009, Three Rivers Waterkeeper is an advocacy group that “aims to improve and protect the water quality” of Pittsburgh’s rivers. Resources and future programming are available on their website at https://www.threeriverswaterkeeper.org/.
Clare Sheedy is a visuals intern for PublicSource. She is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is studying English Literature and Digital Media..
Do you feel more informed?
Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh area with more stories like this – support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.