When PWSA board members, directors, employees, academics, activists and city officials talk about the recent crisis at PWSA, they have to clarify which one. 

The most public crisis was the lead crisis: The levels in Pittsburgh’s drinking water rose above the federal threshold that required the city to take drastic action.

That was preceded by the billing crisis, where customers sued PWSA for bills that were often wildly inaccurate. Due to a poorly executed installation of new meters, some bills were thousands of dollars too high, and tens of thousands of customers were not receiving any bills at all. 

A decade ago, it became clear there was an emerging stormwater crisis when four residents lost their lives in a flood. Unprecedented rainfall in 2018 and 2019 dumped record amounts of sewage into the city’s rivers. 

Then, there was the leadership crisis. One executive director left in scandal in 2010 after it was discovered that he had financial ties to a contractor he didn’t disclose. A couple leaders stuck around for six months and then decided the job wasn’t for them. The authority couldn’t attract top talent because the salaries were too low.

All of these problems led to a crisis over whether and how PWSA would remain public: First, the international company Veolia, hired in 2012 to manage PWSA, was ousted after the agency seemed to be crumbling under its watch. And then in 2018, Republican state lawmakers and Peoples Gas both made very public plays to privatize PWSA. 

But people most intimately aware of PWSA’s challenges say the authority’s biggest — ongoing — crisis of all barely registered: the potential for large-scale failure of its infrastructure.

Will Pickering, PWSA’s CEO, says he doesn’t sleep much at night. “There are single points of failure in the system. If they were to break today, we would have a very challenging time providing water to the city,” he said.

As the other crises were in full swing in late 2016 and early 2017, Mayor Bill Peduto quietly met with U.S. Army reservists out of Mercer County to identify an alternate way of providing drinking water, he said. The plan, he said, involved pumping water directly from the river, purifying it and then filling water buffaloes for distribution all across the city.

Hundreds of pipes were breaking that winter. In January 2017, 100,000 residents were told to boil their water before drinking it and some schools had to close as a result. Peduto began telling the public that it would take $4 billion or $5 billion in investments to fix PWSA. 

But the threat of a large drinking water failure was overshadowed in the public eye by the lead crisis, Pickering said. 

“It would’ve been a nightmare,” said Caren Glotfelty, a PWSA board member from 2014 to 2017. “It would’ve been like Flint, Michigan, only the issue was not lead in the water. It was no water.”

Water erupts from a manhole during a storm surge in Four Mile Run in September 2017. (Photo courtesy of Thomas D’Andrea)

Peduto appointed a panel of local experts to look into what should be done. Jared Cohon, the former president of Carnegie Mellon University who sat on the committee, said reports given to the committee made it clear that “essential parts of the system were in really bad shape.” 

Morgan O’Brien, the president of Peoples Natural Gas Company at the time, recalled the committee-hired consultant sharing how Pittsburgh’s water system conjured up memories of Milwaukee in the 1990s, where bacterial contamination left thousands sick and was responsible for the death of 69 people, most of whom were AIDS patients. A similar failure of the disinfection system at Pittsburgh’s Highland Park reservoir could leave the city exposed, O’Brien said he learned from the consultant. (In 2020, PWSA finished installing a backup UV filtration system at the reservoir.)

And what Cohon, who has studied water problems like this for decades, told people was: 

“Every water system is always at risk of failure. The question is about how big the risk? What this showed us is the risk had become intolerably high.”

Leaders at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development told Cohon that they wanted PWSA to be privatized and considered fixing PWSA the most important job of Peduto’s second term. Peduto had been championing the city’s economic turnaround and was trying to convince companies like Amazon that it was a world-class city worth investing in. But it wouldn’t be without reliable drinking water.

“It doesn’t matter if there is lead in the water if people turn the dial and no water comes out,” Peduto said.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said he looked for alternative ways of providing drinking water to the city in the event of a major failure of the city’s water infrastructure. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Authority without independence

At the height of the public crisis in August 2017, city consultant Infrastructure Management Group Inc. described PWSA as “a failed organization atop a dangerous and crumbling structure.”

PWSA has made noted progress since then. The bills are accurate. The lead levels are lower than they’ve been in two decades. Leadership has stabilized. Revenue is up. Large infrastructure projects are finally being completed.

For example, PWSA has begun construction on a $300 million, five-year project to fix and create backup infrastructure for the “water system’s weakest link,” a water well built in 1908 that has never been renovated. There is no current way of repairing the well and, if the well fails, there is no “practical” way to deliver water to the city. 

PWSA CEO Will Pickering says he doesn’t always sleep well at night knowing there are still some “single points of failure” that would make it difficult to provide drinking water. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The plan is to build a complicated workaround. Each step of the project has to be completed carefully and in a specific order to ensure people still have drinking water as the repairs are made. At its September board meeting, the board approved $1.5 million to repair a 60-inch pipe that was leaking and which is critical to providing water to the entire North Side. With one of its biggest reservoirs in Highland Park about to be taken offline for eight months next year as well, the system would be severely stressed if the pipe broke.

“My concern is that, with the Highland 2 [reservoir] out of service, if something happens to that line, we’re in a pretty bad situation,” board member Jim Turner said. 

Bob Weimar, who retired as executive director last year, is still a little worried. There is a lot of redundancy to Pittsburgh’s water system, so he thinks that the chance of a catastrophic failure to the city’s drinking water, like an earthquake damaging one of the reservoirs, is low. But he estimated there’s a 20-25% chance of a large pipe break that would prevent there from being enough water pressure to effectively fight fires in parts of the city.

The turnaround almost didn’t happen

If the leaders of the city and PWSA have all been concerned about a major failure of the water system — why have we heard so little about it? Instead, several of the key studies recommended PWSA prioritize what they saw as the underlying cause of all the problems — how PWSA was governed.

PublicSource’s reporting reveals how a complex system of power dynamics — between residents, staff, board members and city leaders — failed for years to buttress the city’s water infrastructure. Yet it shows that they collectively managed to turn the organization around, even if some actors were sometimes pulling in opposite directions. 

“We have been a grade school Grade 2 utility and now we are a high school graduate utility,” said Paul Leger, who served on the board between 2014 and this year. “We need to go on to college and earn our master’s, but we’ve gained tremendous progress.”

The city’s drinking water and sewage infrastructure will require billions of dollars in repairs over the coming decades. And, as climate change brings more rain, the city’s stormwater infastructure will also need an upgrade. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

PWSA was created by city leaders fewer than 40 years ago and given operational independence only 26 years ago. Its main purpose from the start was to create a vehicle to invest in the city’s water infrastructure. But even mayors that believed in the purpose in principle often found excuses not to. And employees were often hired according to who they knew rather than what they knew. 

There were several key sources of power influencing PWSA: The executive directors themselves often had a huge influence on what board members knew and believed. Local water activists and city council members each pushed their own views of how to better run PWSA. And longtime PWSA staff were sometimes a source of insightful information and other times a barrier to reform.

But the most important power dynamic across several mayoral administrations was the struggle between PWSA’s board and the city’s mayor. Several independent audits and Peduto’s own Blue Ribbon panel all said that to turn around PWSA, something had to be done to prevent it from being hijacked by the priorities coming from the mayor’s office. 

For decades, mayors had used the city’s water system as a way to fill budget holes and political ambitions: through direct cash transfers sometimes or as a way to fund development deals that favored private interests over PWSA’s. Instead of voting to raise rates to replace aging pipes and outdated pumps, they kicked the can down the road.

It wasn’t just the mayors. City councilors who sat on its board objected to rate increases. PWSA cycled through executive directors. Without adequate funding, PWSA couldn’t afford the experts it needed to turn itself around.

All the while, the pipes underneath the ground were deteriorating and workers had to jump from one emergency to another in the absence of preventative maintenance. Its water treatment system was, according to its engineers, held in working order by proverbial bailing wire. And just when lead in the water had become a national conversation, the pipes no longer even performed the most basic function: preventing residents from being poisoned.

Read the next story in this series: “Part 2: The Pittsburgh mayor that spent PWSA’s money on development projects and the Pittsburgh mayor that underfunded it”

Explore more stories in this series: “A water crisis swept through Pittsburgh five years ago: This is the fullest account of what happened.”

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

This story was factchecked by Matt Maielli.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...