Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Repeated, Preventable Flooding in Pittsburgh's Junction Hollow Neighborhood

While much of the dialog about Pittsburgh's combined sewage-stormwater system centers around sewage discharges into the nearby rivers, for some residents and businesses in the Junction Hollow neighborhood the problem literally strikes much closer to home.  Sewage and stormwater from the Four Mile Run sewer line has, on several occasions, erupted from manhole covers and flooded the neighborhood, dumping raw sewage into basements and flooding streets with many feet of filthy water.

Yes - that's right - raw sewage.  I've spent a bit of time helping clean up flood damage in Vermont and even the silt from Vermont's relatively clean floodwaters becomes a health risk after flooding.  I can't even imagine what it would be like to have this filthy water flowing into my home:

The remarkable video above, taken by local resident Michael Vincent, shows the explosive power experienced when aging combined stormwater-sewage lines are overloaded with water from a summer thunderstorm.  This water is probably coming from the sewer line that channels the runoff - and sewage - from most of the historic Junction Hollow Watershed.

click below for more...

The above video was taken in the summer of 2007 but this flooding was unfortunately not an isolated event.  Similar floods happened in 2004, 2009, and during the recent severe flooding of this summer.

Here's a view of the Junction Hollow area (foreground, where the historic creek channels merge) and the historic watershed.  The current sewage lines follow a similar path:

Junction Hollow Watershed

Click here for an interactive Google map with more info on the historic watershed.

You can see that Junction Hollow is in a low-lying area where two creeks converged (and two sewer lines now converge).  The situation here is very similar to that in Negley Run where tragic flash flooding claimed several lives last month.

The residents of Junction Hollow have sent me an information packet on the flooding, and with their permission, I am going to share a few photos and stories from this packet.




Above photos from Chaser's In The Run.






Above photos by Laura Shaffalo Vincent.  She also reports "Nearly eight feet of [sewer] water in basement" in 2007 and 2009, as well as an inch of water on her first floor.  Her car was drenched with four inches of filthy water, and a few inches of filthy debris filled her property and required several days to clean up after each occurrence.

Paul and Evelyn Matvey have experienced repeated flooding and now have unsanitary mold on their basement walls due to the flooding and other sustained water seepage.

Dennis and Denise Klein lost "a tremendous amount of tools, building material, from construction business" in 2011, after losing a classic car, christmas decorations, and more tools during the 2009 flood.

Susan Morrison lost construction and plumbing equipment vital to her job during the 2009 flood, and had to build an outdoor shed to store her tools so that they would not be ruined during the repeated flooding.  Her washer, dryer, and water heater were ruined in 2009 and her furnace needed extensive repair.

The Slavonic Club reported a basement filled with water during 2011, and also said the flooding has been happening for 20 years, and is getting worse.  Like many in the area, they are no longer to store anything in the basements, because of the repeated flooding.

These are just a few of the stories from Junction Hollow, a vibrant and unique little community of Pittsburgh that is trying to fight against a rising tide of urban runoff and sewage.  Unfortunately, they can't stop the flooding on their own, and are seeing little support from the authorities or from other community members.  In the long term, the sewer system needs to be rebuilt and changed, but in the short term, there are things the community can do to help prevent a recurrence of these floods.  The residents of Junction Hollow would very much like to never have sewage in their homes again.

Everyone who lives or owns a business in the watershed, which spans Squirrel Hill, eastern Oakland, and northern Greenfield, can help reduce stormwater flows.  The problem is caused by too much water rushing into the system at once, so anything you can do to slow down runoff is helpful.  Set up a rain barrel, and if you don't need the water for your plants, just drain the barrel the day after the storm has passed.  Build a rain garden or swale, or install pervious pavement.  Plant more trees, avoid pavement, and don't over-plant lawns (they are better than pavement at slowing down water, but worse at it than native vegetation, a vegetable garden, or an area with lots of trees).  Check out the Rain Garden Alliance page for more info on how to help.  Even if you don't live in the Junction Hollow or Negley Run watersheds, the above measures will help keep sewage out of the rivers.

A larger-scale way to help the residents of Junction Hollow is to support the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy in its restoration of the Panther Hollow watershed and daylighting of Four Mile Run.  Panther Hollow in Schenley Park already does a great job of slowing down runoff, and restoring the watershed in the park will help it do its job more effectively, decreasing the amount of water rushing into the sewer system immediately following storms.  The 'daylighting' of Four Mile Run would involve restoring a portion of the aboveground flow of Four Mile Run, a historic creek channel that once flowed through Junction Hollow.  During storms, a portion of the runoff would flow down the creek instead of into the sewer line, greatly diminishing the chance of a sewage overflow.  The addition of a daylighted stream would also increase the value of the largely unused section of Schenley Park in Four Mile Run and bring more park visitors to the area, which would also bring more business to the local restaurants in the Run.

You can help the Parks Conservancy fulfill their restoration and daylighting goals by making a donation, voluntering for restoration projects in the park (this not only helps the park directly but also helps the park get grants), and/or letting local policymakers know that you support the project.  You can also help the residents of Junction Hollow by sharing this post with your friends in Pittsburgh.


  1. Thank you for your attention to this. Though it may seem that major rains have caused the flooding that is not always the case. I was able to take the video because I called off work to finish clean-up from flooding from a heavy rain a few days before. During this last flood the only clean-up effort we have seen was water trucks pushing all the mud and debris back into the sewer grates. Less heavy rainfalls are now backing up into homes with no explanations being given. We are now installing backflow valves which many houses have been equipped with long ago but have since failed. You can see a broken pipe in the background of the video that is drainage from a six lane bridge above, (376 Parkway) that has now been fixed. There are four of these draining into the sewer lines which adds to the problem. Thanks again, mike

  2. Thanks very much for calling attention to the flooding problem in Four Mile Run. My husband and I moved to the neighborhood in 2008 and have weathered two of the floods already, and I appreciate the suggestions on how we can individually help to work toward the solution. I hope the city will heed warnings like the ones in this article and do their part as well.

  3. I definitely hope this is helpful. Unfortunately this spans the whole watershed so Junction Hollow is now dependent on upstream communities. I would definitely talk to the PPC though, because I do think that project would help you out a lot.

  4. Councilman Shields is holding a Community Meeting re: the water/flooding issues in the district. Date: Oct. 10 Time: 6 p.m. Location: Jewish Community Center, Forbes & Murray in Squirrel Hill

    If you are unable to attend, please email your comments to: gloria.forouzan@city.pittsburgh.pa.us

    Thank you, Gloria Forouzan
    Office of Councilman Shields

  5. Won't be surprised if I start seeing more counties using things like inlet filters to help maintain sediment control during the coming rainy season! However, I don't think it would do much against floods of that size!

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  7. This seems like big flood, couldn't even imagine the damage that is done. Hope that all are well. I think floods are the worst natural disasters because they leave polluted drinking water, dead animals etc, that can affect the environment for months. I protected myself with buying flood insurance in Warren RI , you should consider it too.


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