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Environment & Energy

Dry For Centuries, Water To Flow Again In Highland Park’s Heth’s Run

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Matt Nemeth
/
90.5 WESA

At the south end of the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium parking lot is a small access road with a sign reading “Do Not Enter.” Beyond that is a big gravel parking lot, mostly used for overflow parking during large zoo events and as a staging area and storage space for the Department of Public Works.

More than a century ago, a stream known as Heth’s Run flowed through this area all the way to the Allegheny River, according Susan Rademacher, parks curator with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

“This is a stream valley that was filled over the years, so we’re actually standing much, much higher – some 70 or 80 feet higher – than the original level of the valley floor where the stream once flowed,” she said.

Conservancy leaders are joining City of Pittsburgh officials in their hope to restore the valley and its long-dormant stream as part of an effort to recreate the space that for decades has been largely inaccessible to the public.

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Credit Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy
Restoration of the Heth's Run Valley will add about 80 acres of usable space to Highland Park.

Rademacher said the reclamation of the valley will add about 80 acres of usable space to the 380-acre Highland Park, and will also help take the pressure off the combined sewer systems that channel stormwater from the surrounding neighborhoods.

“There’s a large combined sewer overflow in Heth’s Run,” said Brendan Shubert, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. “It’s not the worst in the city, but it’s a priority area.”

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Credit Matt Nemeth / 90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have until 2036 to comply with a federal order to limit sewer discharge into the rivers during wet weather.

In March, the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to give the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority more time to find green solutions to the overflow problem. Redirecting stormwater into streams and groundwater, rather than combined sewer systems that also carry raw sewage, is a major component of that solution.

“We expect the water that we’re capturing from the neighborhoods to make its way on the surface down the ravines to be received into various little bodies of water that will hold it for a while and release it on down,” Rademacher said. “The stream will continue to wend its way through the entire Heth’s Valley, all the way to the bridge, under the bridge and then under the railroad tracks.”

But addressing the city’s sewer overflow issue isn’t the only reason for the Heth’s Run Valley project. Rademacher said the redesign of the valley has been part of the Highland Park master plan since 2000, years before the EPA and ALCOSAN reached the initial consent agreement for dealing with combined sewer overflows.

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Credit Matt Nemeth / 90.5 WESA
Concrete blocks lay in piles in Heth's Run Valley near the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

“This is a really big portion of Highland Park that is kind of a hidden gem, an unrealized asset,” Rademacher said. 

Preliminary plans also call for other man-made water features, hiking and biking trails, a river overlook, athletic fields and picnic areas. The city and Parks Conservancy are currently in the conceptual planning stage with more detailed plans to come in 2017.

Before that happens, Rademacher said they want more input both from people who live nearby and from regular zoo users.

The Parks Conservancy is currently seeking feedback through an online survey, which closes July 22, and plans to hold a community meeting in late summer or early fall.

“We believe that people have a great depth of intelligence about the places in which they live and they know more than anyone else how they want to engage with nature, with our parks, with our natural resources and with each other,” Rademacher said.

Because it is still so early in the design process, Rademacher couldn’t comment on a potential timeline or cost estimate for the project.

“We’re taking it one step at a time,” she said.