As PWSA looks past the lead crisis, its new leader faces $1 billion in upgrades and rising water bills

Will Pickering was chosen to lead the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority because of his ability to remain calm through turbulent issues, work collaboratively and communicate clearly. These traits will be tested as PWSA faces a challenging decade ahead.

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PWSA Executive Director Will Pickering photographed near the Highland 1 reservoir in Highland Park. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

PWSA Executive Director Will Pickering photographed near the Highland 1 reservoir in Highland Park. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Kinsey Casey, the chief operating officer of the city of Pittsburgh, had only been in her job for a couple of weeks last October, when news broke that a Port Authority bus had fallen into a sinkhole Downtown.

"Well, this is going to be fun,” she remembered thinking. 

When Casey showed up to the scene, she met Will Pickering, the director of public affairs for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA], for the first time. Some local experts were quick to say that the hole was likely caused by a water issue, such as a leaky pipe. Pickering had just returned from leave that morning after his first child was born, and she assumed he would be very tired. This was the kind of national story that would cause many leaders and responsible officials to be angry or defensive. 

But instead of blowing off steam, Pickering was calm, she said.

It was the kind of level-headed response that board members at PWSA are hoping for from Pickering, who took over as executive director in June. Under his leadership, the authority faces a variety of difficult and sometimes contradictory challenges. 

It is committed to replacing aging infrastructure, including lead service lines, to the tune of more than $1 billion over five years, a rapid increase in spending. This also means it’s begun raising rates and has proposed even more increases, even as the COVID-19 pandemic has left significant economic uncertainty in the region and required the authority to suspend water-shutoffs. 

As the authority increases the number of big projects it’s taking on, it has committed to diversifying its workforce and its contractors to better reflect the city it serves. The agency is trying but struggling to sign up low-income customers for its new customer assistance programs, Pickering said. The economic realities facing ratepayers are causing PWSA to pull back on some previous plans to address stormwater through green infrastructure — projects which could help revitalize some of the struggling neighborhoods those ratepayers live in.

Interviews with eight people familiar with Pickering’s work, including current and former bosses, board members, colleagues and local water advocates, along with Pickering himself, paint a portrait of a leader who is used to staying cool even when the heat is on; someone who looks to build consensus and hear out all sides of an argument; and someone who doesn’t try to brush past tough issues. He has more than a decade of experience managing stakeholders in Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh and communicating with the public about high-stakes issues.

Advocates who previously criticized PWSA’s lead response said they trust Pickering will continue to improve the city’s problem with lead in the drinking water. Some advocates who still criticize the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority [ALCOSAN] for not investing enough in green infrastructure said they trust Pickering will do whatever he can. But they are disappointed that PWSA appears to be pulling back on some commitments to green infrastructure.

George Hawkins, the former CEO and general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority [DC Water] for eight years and Pickering’s former boss, said Pickering won’t be able to make everyone happy. "There is no magic that he’ll find out what the answers are,” he said. "The only way to find a path forward is to build honest and trusting relationships even with people who may disagree with you. I think those are his strengths."

Learning from DC

Hawkins recruited Pickering to manage governmental relations at DC Water in 2012, soon after he had left a similar job at the city’s department of transportation. 

DC Water faced several similar challenges to what PWSA faces now: a recent history of lead in the water, a backlog of big capital projects, rising rates that would hit low-income communities hard, and sometimes difficult relations with other departments and agencies.

Hawkins recruited Pickering, now 37, because he thought he had the right temperament to take on these challenges. "In all roles, he stays calm, cool and collected under fire. He always takes a deep breath,” Hawkins said. "It’s a tremendous trait to have someone who keeps cool as all sorts of events happen."

Pickering was in charge of managing the relationships with dozens of neighborhood commissioners, the city council and the mayor’s office. And he needed to create space, Hawkins said, for the utility to implement changes to its lead program.

"A lot of the advocates and those who cared about lead issues were angry,” Hawkins said. "And it’s hard to get the chance to fix something if someone is angry and isn’t willing to listen and give you a chance to succeed. Will was great at giving us that window of opportunity.”

Pickering also had to improve the agency’s relationship with the department of transportation, where it sometimes fought over how streets would be rebuilt. And Pickering spearheaded tense negotiations with the city about what the city would pay for and what DC Water would be responsible for, a negotiation PWSA is currently undergoing with the City of Pittsburgh over the city’s flooding challenges. 

Hawkins said it was “so great to have festering challenges that had been around for a very long time get resolved."

Moving to Pittsburgh

In 2016, Pickering and his wife, who is from Pittsburgh, decided to move here full time. Pickering reached out to some city and local government officials to ask about PWSA.

"Frankly, a lot of people warned me of PWSA,” Pickering said. 

“That place is a mess. Steer clear,” he said he was advised.

The agency had been struggling to reduce lead levels in Pittsburgh’s water. In 2016, lead levels tested at 22 ppb, above the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of 15 ppb. Lead is a neurotoxin that is unsafe to ingest in any quantity, and some residents started making comparisons between Flint, Michigan, and Pittsburgh. This was after years in which some of its 83,000 customers complained about the high cost of water and poor customer service, as incorrect bills were issued and PWSA struggled to pay off old debts.

Pickering saw some similarities in the challenges Pittsburgh was facing around lead in the water with what he’d already seen DC Water overcome. Pickering took an interim communications position. He was promoted to the director of public affairs soon after PWSA hired Bob Weimar out of retirement as interim executive director

PWSA Executive Director Will Pickering. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

PWSA Executive Director Will Pickering. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

City Councilwoman Erika Strassburger, a 2020 appointee to the PWSA board, saw the same qualities in Pickering that Hawkins saw. “He had the difficult job of helping to communicate in a calm and accurate way, making up for what were decades of mismanagement and poor decisions that were made,” Strassburger said.

Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, the executive director of the nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment, said that when she would speak at lead events with Pickering, she noticed that Pickering was listening to ideas. “He took those early outreach times to help shape and inform the lead program that was so desperately needed during a time of concern and quite frankly turmoil,” said Naccarati-Chapkis.

Strassburger was impressed with Pickering when he met with angry residents from the Shadyside Action Coalition whose homes were experiencing frequent basement floods. Pickering and his staff remained calm and were able to deescalate the situation, she said. 

“He was the one leading the charge on how to coach others on how to communicate and did a great job on getting buy-in on this new plan that will work there,” she said.

Vision, balance

One of PWSA’s biggest challenges over the next 10 to 15 years will be balancing the need for vast infrastructure improvements, while also trying to keep PWSA’s rates affordable, Pickering said. PWSA kept rates artificially low in the past, deferring major repairs for three decades. 

“That balancing act is what keeps me up late at night,” Pickering said.

PWSA spent $49 million replacing lead lines and has plans to replace more than $1 billion of old and failing infrastructure over the next few years. This would increase its capital spending from a little over $50 million in 2018 to more than $300 million in 2021.

To help pay the debt for the new projects, PWSA on March 6 proposed a rate increase that would increase revenue by more than 30% over the next two years. It would generate more than $50 million in revenue and cause the average rate payer’s bill to increase from $72 to $92 per month by 2022. 

Pickering said PWSA needs to get out in front of complaints about the affordability of rate increases now, before it becomes a political problem down the road. PWSA has in the last couple of years instituted several programs for low-income customers, including a $300 yearly payment, a 75% rate cut and free lead-service line replacements. 

PWSA set out an ambitious plan for replacing its infrastructure last year. (Courtesy of PWSA)

But the problem is that not enough people are signing up for the programs, Pickering said. A $2 million pot of money was set aside for lead-service line replacements but, while its other lead-service contracts will come to an end in September, that program still has unspent funds. More than 4,000 low-income customers have signed up for discounts but Pickering said it’s been a challenge to find everyone who needs it.

"We know eligibility is much larger than actual enrollment at this period,” Pickering said. "We’re just scratching the surface."

PWSA has an advisory committee, which reported that some low-income families said that applying for assistance programs has become almost a full-time job. Pickering is looking for ways customers could sign up for water discounts, at the same time they are signing up for electric and gas discounts.

He pushed PWSA to create a Water Equity Task Force, according to Radhika Fox, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Water Alliance. As a result of this work, PWSA will release an equity roadmap in September that addresses commitments to ratepayers, communication with communities and hiring.

PWSA’s workforce is 22% Black, which PWSA says reflects the community, but Pickering says he wants to increase the diversity of its management and contractors.

"I have a responsibility as a leader, too, that my management and leadership team reflects our community, and I think it’s an area we’ve fallen short and it’s a priority of mine and a priority of our board of directors,” Pickering said.

Gray vs. green infrastructure

One challenge PWSA will face going forward is how to prioritize green infrastructure projects across the city, Pickering said. Green infrastructure projects use landscaping and plants to manage stormwater rather than underground pipes, and advocates say it provides additional health and economic benefits.

PWSA published a Green First plan in 2016 that laid out around $700 million in potential stormwater projects. Weimar previously had said PWSA was planning to spend more than $130 million on stormwater projects over five years but had not yet begun.

PWSA is revising its stormwater plans, Pickering said, now that ALCOSAN’s consent decree was finalized in 2019. The consent decree commits ALCOSAN to spending billions of dollars on expanding its treatment plant and building underground tunnels to reduce the amount of sewage in the rivers. 

This is a disappointment to some advocates who thought PWSA had taken leadership on green infrastructure projects in the city. "Everyone was hoping [PWSA] would carry the mantle, and they dropped it,” said John Stephen, who is leading the Negley Run Task Force, one of the biggest proposed green infrastructure projects in the city. "This region needs a stormwater leader. We don’t have one. It’s continually passing the buck.”

Tom Hoffman, an organizer at the Sierra Club who has led the Our Water Our Rivers campaign, said he supports Pickering. He believes Pickering’s work in Washington, D.C., where the city took on innovative green infrastructure projects, shows Pickering will support the projects as much as he can. 

"Will has always been pretty willing to work with us,” Hoffman said. “So we’ve been, so far, very excited to see Will. We thought that was a good choice.”

The Highland 1 reservoir in Highland Park. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The Highland 1 reservoir in Highland Park. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Pickering said PWSA is still committed to the region’s two largest stormwater projects, at Four Mile Run and Negley Run. And it is planning on moving forward with a stormwater fee that will provide additional revenue for stormwater projects. And there will still be opportunities to address stormwater issues, particularly where it impacts public health, through flooding, basement backups and sewer discharges.

Pickering said PWSA has been focused on its drinking water program, replacing lead lines and planning large infrastructure upgrades, and now has to come up with a new stormwater vision that fits in with its other plans. He doesn’t want PWSA to pay for stormwater work that ALCOSAN’s plan already covers. That would make it so that ratepayers were paying twice to remove sewer overflows from the city’s rivers. 

Because they’re looking at more than $700 million in projects, Pickering said, “it’s our responsibility when we’re choosing projects and locations that make sense to look twice.”

COVID adjustments

Days after PWSA requested its rate increase in early March, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the economy to go into recession and nearly tripled Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate to 13.7%. Pickering said he is hoping to compromise on a lower rate increase that will give PWSA the money to take on large infrastructure projects while limiting the impact on rate payers during this uncertain time. 

PWSA is predicting that its own revenues will fall 11% this year, as it put a moratorium on water shut-offs. More customers are paying their bills than they initially predicted, Pickering said, and revenue had only fallen by about 3.5% as of June’s board meeting.

Negotiating the right rate to keep customers happy and PWSA on course will be a challenge. But it’s the kind of challenge that Pickering was promoted to take on. 

Customers lost trust in PWSA in the era before Weimar took over, Pickering said. He thinks that recent water-quality test results, which put PWSA in compliance with federal lead requirements, show PWSA is on the right path. Now, Pickering said, PWSA gets more complaints about the road work they are doing to replace lead lines than about lead in the water.

"I no longer want PWSA to be a four letter word around Pittsburgh,” Pickering said.

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

This story was fact-checked by Emily Briselli.

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