Lake Effect | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Lake Effect

Environmental imbalances strike close to home

Were it not for the joggers visible through the trees, it would be easy to forget yourself here. The grasses reach above your head, and the nearby pond, while a bit brackish, teems with insects and at least a lone fish. A startled yearling, its brown coat still flecked with white, bounds out from the tall grasses, perhaps seeking an SUV to collide with.



For the yearling is never far from such predators. Its home is North Park, a few feet from the shores of a dying artificial lake.


From a distance, North Park Lake looks rustic, graced with a handsome stone boathouse and the occasional blue heron. From a distance, you can imagine what the lake's creator, Paul B. Riis, had in mind when Allegheny County designed and built North Park in the 1920s and 1930s. "[T]he county parks were called 'the people's country clubs,'" writes local historian R. Jay Gangewere, with the goal of "bringing to poorer people the same recreation that the wealthy paid for at private clubs." To this day, the lake is stocked with fish several times a year.


From up close, though, the picture isn't as appealing: discarded wrappers from lures and fishhooks litter the shore, alongside pop cans and other trash. The shoreline itself is shrinking, and the more stagnant recesses of water have an oily sheen. Even well away from shore, you can see vegetation clustered at the water's surface, threatening to snare passing paddleboats.


For decades, North Park Lake has been choking on silt from the surrounding suburban landscape. Originally 22 feet deep, it is now half that. It is still a sprawling body of water -- the largest man-made lake in the county -- but a dozen acres smaller than the 75 acres Riis designed. 


Such changes take place almost imperceptibly: Many county residents first learned of the problem thanks to a thorough Aug. 7 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette piece by Jerome Sherman. County public works director Tom Donatelli, though, has been grappling with the problem for years. "I started working here in 1997, and in 1998 I saw the vegetation in the lake and said, 'Something has to be done out there,'" he says. "There used to be a piece of equipment called a mudcat to remove the silt. But [the silt] was coming in so fast, it was like whistling in a wind tunnel."


The Army Corps of Engineers had a $7.7 million plan to dredge the lake. But in 2004, Donatelli says, "right after the Corps laid off all these people, we found out the project had been put on hold." Donatelli says local officials are trying to get the feds to change their minds.


Other county residents might be forgiven if their sympathy is muted. What did suburbanites think was going to happen when they voted for George W. Bush -- twice?


Indeed, at some level, the lake's fate was inevitable, the natural result of suburban sprawl itself. By all accounts, the more development that has cropped up around the park, the faster the lake has filled in. Like the highways clogged with rush-hour commuters, North Park Lake is in danger of being choked off by the very affluence it helped to attract.


But as the suburbs go, so go we all. We drive to Lake Arthur to escape the summer's heat...and in the process our cars emit the gases that will heat next summer even more. We cannot help but despoil the nature we travel to enjoy. Yet while the evidence for global warming builds, we elect officials with little interest in doing anything about it, except drilling for oil and harvesting timber in the few wilderness areas remaining. Contemplating North Park Lake, it's hard not to be reminded of T.S. Eliot's epitaph for western civilization: "Here were decent godless people / Their only monument the asphalt road / And a thousand lost golf balls." We want to maintain at least the trappings of nature, and yet we're haunted by the sense that, someday, the trappings of nature are all we may have left.


"You get a sinking feeling when you think about this," says Donatelli, who is himself a North Hills resident and fan of the pond. "I fish at that lake." But when he goes now, "Half my mind's on fishing, and half my mind's worrying about the lake. It's not like getting away."

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