Editor’s note: The following photos were taken during a free educational community kayaking session with the Three Rivers Waterkeeper group. Due to heavy rain, all photos were taken with disposable waterproof cameras. The film was scanned and the color was adjusted in editing to remove an overly blue tone in the photos.

Some 50 years ago, Marla Jonas remembers skiing on the Allegheny River – dodging “scum” as she skimmed the surface. 

“There was a lot of debris in the water that didn’t belong there. It wasn’t natural debris,” she said. 

Earlier this month, Jonas, a Fox Chapel resident, met with a group of 10 others at the Deer Creek Boat Ramp along the Allegheny River in Harmar Township. They met for a free kayaking session organized by Three Rivers Waterkeeper, with kayaks provided by Venture Outdoors

The event was a training session for community members interested in learning to spot and report river pollution. While it was the final event in a series of similar kayaking and hiking events this summer, Three Rivers Waterkeeper has more educational events scheduled for the fall. 

On this Saturday morning, it rained. 

Sheltering in the trunk of her SUV, Jess Friss’ eyes followed a puddle leaking across the parking lot. A water advocate for Three Rivers Waterkeeper, Friss explained that motor oil and gas from the nearby roadway can stream into the river when it rains – especially when there’s not enough grass to absorb the runoff. 

muddy ground
Rainwater from the parking lot at Deer Creek Boat Ramp flows through grass next to the Allegheny River. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

The group first set off toward the Hulton Bridge and stopped at the mouth of Guys Run. Back in May, three railroad cars derailed there, leaking petroleum and plastic pellets into the water. To stop the spillage from reaching the river, oil-absorbent containment barriers, called “booms,” were set up at the entrance to the run. 

oil-absorbent containment barriers, called “booms, on the allegheny river
Oil-absorbent booms block off the mouth of Guys Run from the Allegheny River. Three train cars derailed into Guys Run on May 28, leaking petroleum and plastic pellets into the water. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

Evan Clark, a water keeper with Three Rivers Waterkeeper, said that while the booms are effective, he believes oil seeped into surrounding soil and that it will leak from there into the river “for a long time to come.” 

With the rain gone, the group left the kayaks and waded under a fresh sky, discussing other dangers threatening Pittsburgh-area rivers. For Clark, one “big one” is combined sewage overflows (CSOs) – which gush rainwater combined with wastewater into the rivers. 

debris in the water, allegheny river
Foam and leaves on the surface of the Allegheny River. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

Usually, combined sewer systems carry wastewater to sewage treatment facilities. However, Clark said rains can create excess water that overwhelms the sewer system’s capability for treatment, forcing untreated wastewater directly into the rivers. 

Friss sees CSOs as an example of “how unprepared we are for the changing climate and the changing weather going forward.”

Clark said combined sewer systems “weren’t designed to keep sewage out of the rivers.” Rather, they were designed to keep sewage “off the streets.” 

a person in an orange kayak on the allegheny river
Marla Jonas kayaks on the Allegheny River. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

To address this issue, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority [ALCOSAN] plans to invest $2 billion in a Clean Water Plan that aims to eliminate sanitary sewage overflows and significantly reduce combined sewage overflows by 2036. 

The rivers, once lined with factories and mills, were a hotbed for pollution. During the summer months, thermal pollution from the steel mills made life nearly unsustainable in the rivers. According to Clark, the Monongahela was a “dead river” or near to it before Pittsburgh’s steel industry collapsed. 

the allegheny river and trees
A view of the Hulton Bridge from the Allegheny River in Harmar Township. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

Now, nearly 50 years since the Clean Water Act passed, the rivers are able to support a growing population of over 70 fish species and “top predators” like bald eagles, Clark said. Though the rivers are in a healthier state than they have been in over 100 years, Clark said he often meets people who think the water is in “much worse shape than it actually is.” 

“It’s become very clear to me that our relationship to the rivers is, sometimes, a little stuck in the past,” he said, adding that “episodically” and “mindfully” swimming in and eating fish from the rivers is safe. 

Chuckling, he said, “there’s not just going to be these three-eyed toxic monsters that we pull out from there.”

To know when it’s OK to swim in the rivers, Clark recommended ALCOSAN’s daily email and text alerts.

Anglers should refer to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s health advisory on fish consumption to know how to properly clean and skin caught fish – and what fish to avoid. 

Through his work, Clark said he hopes to deepen the wider community’s connection to and understanding of the rivers. 

a group of kayakers on the allegheny river, trees in background
Kayakers talk about knotweed on an educational kayaking session hosted by Three Rivers Waterkeeper. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

Before kayaking with Three Rivers Waterkeeper, Jonas said she didn’t know how much the rivers had improved – only that they had. For her, one noticeable change from her skiing days was the smell. 

Back then, she said, “we pulled up to the plant over here,” referring to a nearby sewage treatment facility, and, “I could smell the waste coming out. It didn’t smell that great to me over there.

“The smell is much better now.” 

Right now, the staff at Three Rivers Waterkeeper is keeping an eye on the Shell ethylene cracker plant, which is set to begin operation in the fall along the Ohio River in Potter Township. While Clark said it “remains to be seen what effect that plant will have on the water directly,” the plant is “permitted to be a significant polluter in our region.” 

Founded in 2009, Three Rivers Waterkeeper is an advocacy group that “aims to improve and protect the water quality” of Pittsburgh’s rivers. Resources and future programming can be found on their website at https://www.threeriverswaterkeeper.org/.

Clare Sheedy is a visuals intern for PublicSource. She is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studies English literature and digital media.

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Clare Sheedy is a visuals intern at PublicSource. She is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studies English literature and digital media. Outside of her coursework, she spends a lot of...