In the wake of fatal flooding, soggy basements, and sometimes-toxic rivers, officials in Allegheny County are struggling to come up with solutions to satisfy both the Environmental Protection Agency and their constituents.

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (Alcosan) and its municipal partners are under government orders to meet clean water standards after decades of allowing sewage to be illegally released into Pittsburgh’s waterways.

Looming deadlines beginning in 2013 are pressure enough.

But a flash flood on Washington Boulevard that claimed four lives on Aug. 19 heightened public anxiety about gray infrastructure problems and renewed anger about sewage-strewn basements in Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Greenfield.

As Alcosan holds town hall meetings about proposed fixes to the aging pipes that carry sewage and rain water from boroughs and towns to its treatment plant at Woods Run, municipalities are drawing up their own water and sewage management plans.

Alcosan reports to the EPA, while Pittsburgh and its neighbors answer to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Allegheny County Health Department.

Finally, to add to the mix of tensions surrounding the issue, budget-strapped governments will potentially pay billions of ratepayer dollars for more and bigger pipes, while green advocates clamor for more natural solutions such as trees and rain barrels.

It’s an issue being debated by local governments across the country as they contend with climate change and aging pipes.

Whatever the final proposals in Allegheny County, they are likely to result in the largest public works project the county has ever seen, at a cost that many agree will be more than $3 billion before its completion in 2026.

Infrastructure or rain barrels?

While the conventional response to EPA orders to reduce sewage overflow is to build more infrastructure, there is a private-sector push “to get as much ‘green’ as possible into the planning process,” said John Schombert, executive director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather, a non-profit group that helps communities find solutions to water problems.

“Green isn’t mandatory for Pittsburgh like it is for cities with newer (government) decrees. But stopping water at its source is as important as upgrading gray infrastructure, and you do that with roof gardens, rain gardens, cisterns and trees,” Schombert said.

Another problem is that in the Pittsburgh region there is no comprehensive authority to manage both wet weather and sewage, as there is with Philadelphia’s highly lauded Green City, Clean Waters initiative.

Finding solutions for the area is a massive undertaking among local officials whose only common ground may be shared watersheds and interconnected pipes, Schombert said.

“One tree can absorb 50,000 gallons of water a year that would otherwise wash into sewers,” he said, “and a green roof, like the one being demonstrated at the Allegheny County Office Building downtown, can prevent runoff even in a one-inch rainfall. They’re no-brainers.”

Simple green technologies also would lessen the cost of overhauling infrastructure, some of which dates to the early years of indoor plumbing, when sewers that carried storm water also began to conduct waste, said Schombert.

“A lot of those pipes are still functioning today, but they’re cracked and leaky and can’t handle today’s wet weather.”

Separating rain and sewage

Alcosan workmen install a sewer line along Turtle Creek on the Monongahela River in 1957.

Alcosan workmen install a sewer line along Turtle Creek on the Monongahela River in 1957. The process has not changed much in more than 50 years. (Photo provided by Alcosan)

Sending sewage and rain water to rivers became unacceptable about 60 years ago, said Don Waldorf, deputy director of engineering and construction for The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which owns 1,200 of the 4,000 miles of pipes in Alcosan’s service area. “Dilution was the solution until Alcosan was conceived in the 1940s.”

Although the ideal is separate municipal systems for rain water and waste, that approach is so costly — about $125,000 an acre, Waldorf said — that municipalities typically invest in them only when new development occurs. The process has not changed much in more than 50 years.

In 2008, for example, Ross Township, PWSA, 3 Rivers Wet Weather and other partners spent $5 million to have dedicated pipes for sewage and rain water near Jack’s Run, a stream in the North Hills.

And while PWSA has gradually separated one-third of its water pipes from sewage pipes, the more feasible plan is to fix and expand existing infrastructure, Waldorf said.

“We’ve already begun retrofitting some of our larger pipes so they function as reservoirs,” he said.

The repair-and-retain approach is expected to be a common theme as Alcosan and municipalities finalize their proposals.

Underwater tunnels

Alcosan is considering construction of three 10-mile tunnels in the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers to store and convey commingled flow, so that on peak wet-weather days it can be bled slowly to the Woods Run plant, according to David Borneman, Alcosan’s director of engineering and construction.

Currently, even one-tenth of an inch of rainfall is enough to overwhelm Alcosan’s capacity, and sewage is discharged directly into rivers at 312 overflow points, including some on Turtle and Chartiers creeks, and Thompson Run. More than 50 of those points are illegal sanitary sewer overflows, which Alcosan will eliminate.

“About eight billion gallons of untreated water wind up in (local) rivers every year,” Borneman said.

The health department uses orange flags to alert anglers and boaters to high bacterial content in local rivers. They advise on those days that people with compromised immune systems or open sores avoid contact with the water.

Over the past decade, the flags have flown on about half of all days from May through September each year.

Borneman said new storage tunnels also would mean expanding the Woods Run plant, where solids are screened out and sent to landfills, turned into fertilizer, or incinerated to ash and steam that is used to fuel operations.

Smaller, in-ground sewage retention tanks also are being considered by municipalities. The region already has three, including two along Girty’s Run to service Ross and other parts of the North Hills.

And although they function well, Ross Township engineer Art Gazdik thinks adding new infrastructure is a poor investment compared with other options.

“It’s easier but also more expensive to build and maintain,” he said. “The best approach is to renew the system we have…get roots out of pipes and fix leaks…but eliminate the ill itself, which means reducing water at its source.”

A renegotiation?

Passersby watch as workers install a sewer line in 1957 on the Ohio River.

Passersby watch as workers install a sewer line in 1957 on the Ohio River. (Photo provided by Alcosan)

Some cities, including Cleveland and Cincinnati, have newer or amended government orders that allow for the flexibility of green alternatives, an approach that Brenda Smith, executive director of Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, would like local municipalities to pursue.

“The EPA is becoming open to renegotiating decrees as we head into an election year, and governing bodies are finding that even the cheapest plans don’t meet affordability criteria,” Smith said.

“Washington, D.C. renegotiated its decree to build one instead of two deep sewage tunnels and spend $30 million on green projects, at least until they can determine whether that second tunnel is needed,” said Smith. “They’ll do studies over five years to see if they can get the same control with ‘green.’”

The Nine Mile Run association works with Wilkinsburg, Swissvale, and neighboring communities to voluntarily reduce runoff with trees and rain gardens. That helps sustain an $8 million renovation of Nine Mile Run that until five years ago was known to locals as Stink Creek.

Although the run is still plagued by elevated E. coli counts on some days, fish are beginning to return, said Smith, whose organization helps make green tools available to watershed residents.

But rain barrels, rain gardens and other approaches work best when they involve whole communities, said Smith, who indicated that a comprehensive water management authority is needed to generate change.

“There’s a groundswell of grassroots support for green projects,” she said, “but you need regulations to make it happen, and there’s no leadership—not in our city, not in the county—working on that.” à


A Shared Responsibility

Few people think about what happens to the water when they flush the toilet, take a shower or wash dishes. This graphic from Alcosan explains where it goes and how it meets up with water from rain and snow. (Graphic and text provided by Alcosan)

An information graphic by Alcosan depicting wastewater collection.

Graphic provided by Alcosan

Alcosan’s Responsibility:

  • Operation, maintenance and repair of all authority collection and treatment systems and facilities including interceptor sewers, pump stations, access shafts, diversion structures, treatment plant process equipment, etc.
  • Safe and effective discharge of treated wastewater in accordance with Environmental Law and the specifications of the Authority’s operating permit

Municipality’s Responsibility:

  • Maintenance and repair of all municipal sanitary and storm-water sewers, manholes, and catch basins from the street to the point of connection with the ALCOSAN collection system

Property Owner’s Responsibility:

  • Maintenance and repair of all interior and exterior plumbing, fixtures and connections including sinks, toilets, baths, hose bonnets, downspouts, etc.
  • Maintenance and repair of all pipe from the property to the municipal connection, including the cleanout, stand pipe, wye connection and sewer lateral

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Deborah Weisberg is a Pittsburgh freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Pittsburgh Quarterly, Fly Fisherman magazine and other publications.