The Living Waters of Larimer turn a neighborhood nuisance into a precious resource | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Living Waters of Larimer turn a neighborhood nuisance into a precious resource

“These endeavors would be visible public displays of water’s flexibility and would fuel the local ecosystem.”

It was Miss Betty who brought Miss Mary (and many others, truth be told) into the Living Waters of Larimer project.

“I’m always saying, ‘How do I make this better?’” Miss Betty says. “And when I know how, I try to get the message out to the community.”

Her community, Larimer, is arguably the city’s most overlooked neighborhood. Tucked between Homewood and what used to be Silver Lake, Larimer is small, downscale and subject to floods — and for good reason. Stripping away the current concrete and clay, Larimer would stand as it historically did, as a plateau between two waterways — Negley Run and Two Mile Run. Urbanizing the wilderness, Pittsburgh did what it did to so many of the area’s streams, rivulets and run-offs: simply paved them over and then hoped they would slink away, returning to alluvial slime.

Too bad it didn’t work. Not in Larimer. Not anywhere, really.

While these natural waterways are buried, water still finds them, often in incredibly damaging ways. On top of that, some 80 million gallons of rainwater fall on Larimer annually. Worst case: back in 2011, rising rainwaters killed four people on Washington Boulevard, just below Larimer.

Becoming aware of this issue, Betty Lane applied her community-organizing chops and set to work. An experienced social worker with a gold-star résumé that includes turns at Hill House, Pittsburgh Neighborhood Alliance and Lawrenceville Block Watch, she went door-to-door, recruiting acolytes and finding resources for the willing and able. “I try to bring people into the fold,” she says, “educate them about water, about the larger scale.”

One of her converted was Mary Turner. A retired Mellon Bank investigator whose rich patois reveals her rural Georgia roots, Miss Mary began thinking of “the potential of this neighborhood.” “My community,” she gestures about her, “had become a major concern.”

Water was top of the list.

“It wasn’t that important to me at first,” Miss Mary admits. “Then I began to realize how important water is, how necessary it is for green space.”

Dovetailing with that concern is the Living Waters of Larimer project. “We asked how rainwater could be used to fuel businesses, jobs and community projects,” offers Christine Mondor, principal at evolveEA, a sustainable architecture and consulting firm and a major player in Living Waters of Larimer. “Members of the community made plans for self-sustaining urban gardens, orchards, businesses, hydroponic farms and water features in playgrounds and fountains.”

Ground zero is a planned series of cisterns designed to slow down stormwater, to capture it for re-use. Separate stormwater drainage pipes would help, too, catching and channeling water. “These endeavors would be visible public displays of water’s flexibility and would fuel the local ecosystem,” Mondor says.

“Water is our greatest resource,” Miss Mary adds. “I began to think about what we would do if there were no water. If we lived in Arizona or Nevada and had to buy water. I asked myself how can we preserve this precious resource that we have? What can one person do to help? To conserve my fair share of water?”

Taking an inventory of her life — cooking, cleaning, bathing, gardening — she first set up her summer capture: a 60-gallon black-plastic rain barrel. Connected to a downspout, it filled quickly, Miss Mary found— and quite easily watered her garden (farm, really), a breathtaking 150-square-foot cornucopia that is full to bursting with collards, tomatoes, kale, cabbage, black-eyed peas, corn, lettuce and beets.

Quickly, she found that single rain barrel slashed her prodigious water bill in half.

Then Miss Mary asked the obvious question. “How am I going to capture water in the winter?”

Taking a handful of five-gallon buckets of clean snow, she proceeded to melt it, then used the water for mopping the floor, flushing the commode. “It’s no joke to carry five gallons of water,” she says.

Finding it was hard but profitable. Miss Mary asked, well, “What else can I do with this water?” And set about washing the windows and the walls, even doing the dishes.

“If you’re conscious about what you put out,” she says, “you can hear that water meter running. And not hearing it is quite significant.”

So significant that Miss Mary has been preaching the water gospel at community workshops, to anyone who will listen, really. “This can happen,” she says. “We can conserve water. I’m proof that we can.”

There’s a hidden cost, of course. Miss Betty looks at her friend. “Now,” she sighs, “I feel guilty every time I turn the water on.”