Western Pennsylvania Watershed Program
Tom Murphy, Pittsburgh's mayor since 1994, likes to begin many of
his speeches with the same story of his boyhood growing up on the
city's North Side.
"My mother always used to warn me," says Murphy. "Make
sure you're home before dark and don't go near the rivers."
That was sage advice for anyone living in Pittsburgh prior to 1972,
when the Clean Water Act began to have a noticeable effect on the
quality of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers - a unique
confluence of river systems unlike any other in the world, diverse
and more abundant than any other state except Alaska. But for more
than a century, Pittsburgh's three rivers were an unsightly cesspool
of industrial pollution and disease and avoiding them at all costs
was a matter of public health and safety.
Fortunately, these rivers today have become a stunning icon of the
Pittsburgh environmental transformation story. Species of fish that
had died out decades ago have returned in thriving numbers. In fact,
ESPN has selected Pittsburgh's three rivers as the location for
its 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic - the premier bass fishing championship
in the United States. Another indicator of the transformation is
the fact that there are more registered pleasure boats in the Pittsburgh
area than all but one other city in America. And mayflies, a delicate
and peculiar breed of insect that can only survive in clean water
environments, now return to Pittsburgh each spring in swarming numbers
- a telltale indicator of just how far America's three rivers have
A Storied Past
The three rivers that meet in Pittsburgh are actually a vast watershed
of more than a dozen unique creeks and river systems that include
more than 30,000 miles of rivers and streams that extend north to
New York State and south into West Virginia. Created by glacial
melting at the end of the Ice Age, these rivers are as distinctive
in their ecologies as they are in their hydrology, their geography,
and their history. The Monongahela is the oldest of the rivers,
dating back milennia and is largely a working river, supporting
barge traffic up and down through industrial and mining towns in
southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In contrast, the Allegheny
still contains stretches of river that are designated wild and scenic.
An historic tributary, the French Creek, is one of the most ecologically
diverse rivers in America where one can still find many species
of fish intact from the last Ice Age. In fact, the French Creek
supports 87 species of fish and 27 species of freshwater mussels
and clams, some of which are rare or endangered.
Pittsburgh exists because of the confluence of the three rivers.
When colonial settlers first arrived here, Pittsburgh was the western
edge of the American frontier and the rivers provided critical access
to the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually, the uncharted
Louisiana Territory. Sent to scout locations for military outposts
before the American Revolution, Lieutenant George Washington first
observed that "nature has well contrived this place,"
and saw that the Forks of the Ohio would make an ideal location
for a fort to defend the young colonies. Years later, from this
same location, Captain Meriwether Lewis launched his keelboat Discovery
on an expedition that would take him and William Clark to the Pacific
Ocean and forever change the course of American history.
The westward migration and the Industrial Revolution sealed Pittsburgh's
place as a commercial and industrial giant. The rivers provided
the means to transport iron and steel made in Pittsburgh to markets
around the world and the rivers were valued solely for their commercial
Industrial waste and municipal sewage flowed in massive quantities
directly into the rivers untreated. River traffic comprised of barges
and steamships jammed the three rivers. The fouled rivers were so
polluted that the water often reached temperatures of 130 degrees
or more. Steamships could not use Pittsburgh river water in their
boilers because the acidity would corrode the metal parts. Cholera,
typhoid, dysentery, and other diseases were abundant along the river
towns and flooding poured deadly bacteria into the community. Virtually
every species of fish died out. What was left couldn't support the
natural vegetation the rivers needed for their own survival. People
moved as far from the water's edge as they could.
Families learned to "be home before dark and stay away from
Saving the Rivers
Finally, in 1972, the Water Pollution Control Act Amendments brought
the plight of the three rivers into the American spotlight. Stringent
controls on industrial pollution helped reduce effluent discharges.
Decades of vigilance and increased public and legislative attention
on the Western Pennsylvania watershed environment have given rise
to both a dramatic improvement in water quality as well as dozens
of agencies and organizations whose mission is focused on protecting
In support of all of this activity, the Western Pennsylvania Watershed
Program was created 11 years ago, to provide match funding to help
watershed associations access agency grants to complete restoration
projects in their sub-watershed. The Pennsylvania Organization for
Watersheds and Rivers tells us that there are 87 such groups in
the Allegheny River Drainage Basin. Grants for abandoned mine drainage
have brought back to life 440 miles of previously dead streams.
Still, these rivers and watersheds are vulnerable to new threats
related to population growth and economic development. As more housing
developments are constructed, more roads are built and increased
non-point source pollutants threaten their stability. An aging sewer
infrastructure can no longer handle the volume of rain and snow
melting that causes polluted storm water to overflow directly into
But renewed public awareness and appreciation for the role of the
three rivers in the quality of life in Western Pennsylvania may
help ensure that they can maintain their strategic importance as
commercial waterways and recreational amenities. In rapidly growing
numbers, people are returning to the rivers to work, play, and live.
For the first time since the days of Lewis & Clark, being close
to the rivers is not something to avoid - it's something to strive
Mayor Murphy's mother would never have believed it.
John Dawes is the
Administrator of the Western Pennsylvania Watershed Program. He served
as an alternate Commissioner on Governor Ridge's 21st Century Commission
on the Environment and currently serves as President of the Board
of the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers. He can
be reached at [email protected].