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A local reclamation effort swims upstream

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When the words "Banksville Wildlife Sanctuary" appeared in a notice about a new stream-maintenance project along Banksville Road, I knew not to picture silver water in a sylvan setting. The wildest life on this busy route from the Ft. Pitt Tunnels to Mt Lebanon is the people trying to cross on foot.

But I thought some trees might be involved, at least.

The project will "restore native plants to the stream bank of th[is] Saw Mill Run tributary …," heralded the press release from Pennsylvania American Water, the South Hills' utility giving $10,000 to fund it. The notice spoke of "watersheds" and getting rid of "ecosystem-threatening species" while creating a "well-maintained riparian buffer."

I called Carol Knox, head of Blitz on Banksville, the group set to do the work, and asked to see the site of the future buffer. "It's just a creek," she said. "It's a dirty old messy creek."

Or as Blitz board member Nancy Gusky said during a tour of the project area: "This is crapola."

But not irredeemable.

A few years ago, several hundred feet of this unnamed trickle were buried under the parking lot of a social-service agency. Today, at the end of the parking lot, at the bottom of a 10-foot drop, a few inches of water pour from a 6-foot-high corrugated metal pipe. The water pools briefly over greenish rocks, then is forced into a small channel by debris before disappearing 30 feet later under another bit of macadam, which is itself a dumping ground next to Old Banksville Road.

This tiny stretch of nature is invisible from new Banksville Road — also known as Route 19 — and doubtless from the Staples and Eckerd across the roadway. The creek is surrounded on three sides by sheer dirt banks bursting with Japanese knotweed. Next to Old Banksville, the creekside wall is concrete block, topped by the sort of fence used on the berm of highways.

A pile of black macadam sticks up from the creek, just in front of the pipe. And there, taking a break from drinking and swimming in this suspect liquid, are two brown ducks. "Are their feathers falling out?" Knox asks.

Knox isn't certain whether this runoff rainwater also contains city sewer overflow; the water comes steadily, even after a full week without rain. You could probably stay dry in high heels here, but Knox's crew plans to buy waders to navigate.

"It's dangerous enough working on Banksville Road," says Knox.

"In the back of Carol's car and my car we carry our vests," says Gusky.

"And our cones," Knox adds. "We could be PennDOT workers."

The two women are, in fact, catering partners who live in Mt. Lebanon. Knox began Blitz on Banksville six years ago; about 20 core members have been planting gardens, trees and ornamental ironwork along this road ever since.

"Actually, the knotweed looks pretty," Knox muses as we peer down at what passes for duck habitat. "If it weren't destroying the ecosystem. … Sometimes it changes the pH of the soil and the insects don't come back, the birds don't come back …"

Blitz on Banksville will use the water company's money to tear out the knotweed, plant something more fauna-friendly, and build a path from the parking lot to the creek's edge, fencing off the creek to protect it (and save the public from the sheer drop). They'll also build a bird and butterfly garden stretching toward Banksville, complete with fountain, using a donation from Columbia Gas.

Pennsylvania American Water spokesperson Phil Cynar says it's money well spent. "Anything we put in the ground" affects the water, he says: This little pisher of a brook eventually flows from the Ohio Basin to the Mississippi Delta, after all.

As admirable as the effort is, I have a hard time seeing how improving the wildlife surrounding this tiny amount of liquid will affect the health of the Monongahela River drinking water it will become. And when she looks at the extent of the damage her group has to undo, Knox is momentarily daunted. Blitz has to finish the stream improvement by Nov. 1. It has more time for the bird-and-butterfly habitat.

But Knox quickly recovers.

"That's a butterfly — its wings are vertical," she marvels, pointing to the plainest of white species. "It's only waiting for the flowers."

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