Tucked away in Schenley Park, Panther Hollow Lake looks idyllic — at least from a distance. Water inundates it during heavy rainfall, picking up sediment and the runoff from impervious surfaces — roofs, parking lots, and roads — located in neighborhoods upstream.
According to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the county's sanitary authority, in 2012, 82.6 million gallons flowed into and out of Panther Hollow Lake. The system can only handle so much before you get a dirty lake and soggy basements in the businesses and houses just downstream, and eventually sewage overflowing into the three rivers. Once a place for families to ride paddleboats, the lake is now cloudy and clogged.
"When I was teenager, we used to go ice-skating there. It was a beautiful place," says Raymond Baum, 69, president of the Squirrel Hill Coalition and an advocate for the watershed restoration. But now, "It's a big mess, anytime there's a storm event."
For the lake itself, a solution might be at hand: The city, the county and private foundations all plan to finance a restoration effort that begins next year. "You can't do anything, especially on a large scale, without working with these partners," says Erin Copeland, senior restoration ecologist at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. "They own the land, they own the pipes, they treat the water. ...[T]hat partnership piece, this is where the solution is coming from."
But the lake is also a microcosm for broader environmental challenges that mayor-elect Bill Peduto must face. While the city has recovered from the worst excesses of the industrial era, bureaucratic hurdles and political squabbling have hampered some efforts — including those Peduto himself has authored. And despite new "green buildings" and other advances, the city's recent environmental record is something of a mixed bag.
The 2011 "U.S. and Canada Green City Index," sponsored by Siemens, placed Pittsburgh 24th out of 27 cities. This September, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy ranked the Steel City 25th out of 34 cities. Local officials and the Green Building Alliance, a major backer of green initiatives in Pittsburgh, have challenged the report's methodology, but some observers say they suggest there's work to be done.
"The current situation is a classic case of glass half full or half empty," says Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center. "What really matters are the policies going forward and what the rankings will be 10 years from now ... and a possible partnership between the new mayor and county executive."
Of the 100 policies Peduto campaigned on for mayor this year, more than a quarter focused on sustainability. And his track record reflects a longstanding interest in the issue. In 2006, he co-chaired Pittsburgh's first Green Government Task Force, and has served on the city's Sustainability Commission along with eight other mayor-appointed city officials.
"Bill was the politician that was at all of the climate-action meetings," says Jim Sloss, the city's energy-and-utilities manager and one of two employees in its Office of Sustainability and Energy Efficiency.
But when Peduto is sworn in on Jan. 6, his first challenge might be to pick up on initiatives that have idled in recent years.
Three years ago, Peduto and several other council members sponsored bills tying development subsidies to sustainability practices. One measure was the Clean Air Act of 2010, which aimed to reduce pollution from construction sites by requiring lower emissions from diesel engines. A stormwater management ordinance, meanwhile, was aimed at mitigating runoff from parking lots or other "impervious surfaces" that shed water. Another bill set wage requirements for those who would be employed at some developments.
The bills were "put together by [a] coalition of labor unions, environmental groups, and faith-based and community organizations," says Dan Gilman, who serves as Peduto's city-council chief of staff and who will replace him as council's District 8 representative. "The great thing was, it was one of the first times you saw labor unions lined up for clean air and environmental groups lined up for a prevailing wage."
"What I like about him is he's reaching out to everyone," says Kimberly Chapman, a resident of East Liberty and member of Action United, an advocacy group for low- and moderate-income residents.
But since the bill passed in July 2011, the clean-air initiative has idled. The bill required that regulations implementing the ordinance would be publicized within six months, but Gilman says Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration "opposed all three pieces of legislation and never put force behind them." The regulations include standards for the retrofit technology for diesel-fueled construction equipment and the procedures for verifying them.
Administration officials deny that the bills were being ignored. According to City Solicitor Daniel Regan, the regulations were finalized just this past month.