The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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July 28, 2013

Growing concern: Vegetation overtaking protective river walls

JOHNSTOWN — Maybe it can be called the West End Water Wilderness.

Or the River Wall Forest.

Either name would be fitting for the abundance of greenery blooming in the Conemaugh River where it winds through Johnstown’s Cambria City and Coopersdale neighborhoods.

Trees, standing several feet tall, are rooted in the muddy and stony riverbed. In other locations, plants have found homes in cracks along the steep concrete walls that line the Conemaugh.

The result is an unintended miniature forest in the river.

“I looked at it and thought, man, you could have a whole herd of deer down there and nobody could see them,” said Johnstown City Councilwoman Rose Howarth, a West End resident.

But there is some concern about how the lush plants and trees could affect the protective walls, which were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers following the city’s devastating 1936 flood.

“We’re concerned, but I don’t want to overstate that,” said Dan Jones, public affairs specialist for the Army Corps’ Pittsburgh District. “It’s something we keep an eye on.”

Army Corps officials have requested money from Congress to maintain the walls in recent years. None has been provided.

On July 10, the U.S. House passed the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2014, which Pennsylvania’s 12th district congressman, Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, supported. The House appropriations committee recommended providing $62,000 for the Army Corps to use in Johnstown. The Senate version of the bill has been reported by committee.

“We ask for money for certain projects, and it’s really out of our hands what gets funded and what doesn’t,” said Jones.

The last major work on the flood protection system occurred in 2009, when the Army Corps made $3.4 million in repairs and upgrades along the Little Conemaugh River, according to Jones.

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