Solving county sewer problems will require a regional approach, officials say | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Solving county sewer problems will require a regional approach, officials say

"We're trying to herd cats in Allegheny County, which makes this process a little more challenging."

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Whenever there's a public discussion of the county's aging sewer infrastructure, the people you're most likely to hear from are familiar names like Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. The two men represent the region's largest governments, and they appoint the leadership of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN), which handles wastewater from Pittsburgh and 82 other county municipalities.

But ALCOSAN is facing a challenge that goes beyond any one official's jurisdiction. And solving that problem will also lie with people like Mary Ellen Ramage, the borough manager for the tiny Allegheny River town of Etna.

Like sewer systems in many older metropolitan areas, local sewer lines are stressed in periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt. The system's older pipes carry both waste and stormwater, and when they overflow, they often dump raw sewage into rivers and streams.

Etna is a crucial connection in the sewer system: It's where water from northern suburbs is shunted into "trunk lines," which carry it to ALCOSAN's treatment plant on the Ohio River. The sewer system is "shaped like a funnel," Ramage says — with Etna as the neck. But while the pipes carry stormwater and municipal sewage from upstream communities like Shaler and Ross, it's Etna residents and businesses that suffer from basement back-ups when the system is overwhelmed. ALCOSAN's current plan includes installing a second trunk line to share the flow — but Ramage says her working-class community can't afford the $10 million it would cost her residents. That's why, she says, ALCOSAN ought to take responsibility for the upgrade, by taking ownership of the pipe.

"We're a perfect snapshot of why [ALCOSAN] needs to be the entity that operates and manages that trunk line," Ramage says.

Many others, including environmentalists who favor green solutions to the overflow problem, agree that ALCOSAN should work as closely as possible with local governments. But it won't be easy: The agency is scrambling to resolve a two-decade-old dispute with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the next few weeks.

A more regional, cooperative approach "would be a good thing," says Tom Hoffman of Clean Water Action, an environmental-advocacy group. "The problem is, I don't think it can happen tomorrow, and tomorrow is when we need to work with ALCOSAN on this."

An ‘inherently unfair' price tag

For ALCOSAN'S approximately 320,000 ratepayers, the stakes of the debate became obvious last year, when ALCOSAN presented federal regulators its estimated $3.6 billion Wet Weather Plan.

The plan was to resolve the EPA's claim that the county's "combined sewer overflows" — in which overwhelmed sewers dump sewage into waterways — violated the Clean Water Act. In 2008, ALCOSAN entered a consent decree with federal, state, and local regulators to come up with a plan; each of the municipalities it serves is under a similar consent decree of its own.

ALCOSAN's plan involved massive infrastructure projects: building a new water-treatment facility along Chartiers Creek; digging huge underground tunnels to help store water until it could be treated; and expanding the treatment plant itself. ALCOSAN envisioned the work being completed by 2026, but it's already begun hiking rates to pay for it: Rates jumped 17 percent as of Jan. 1, and are slated to increase by 11 percent each year until 2017.

Mayor Bill Peduto says the funding mechanism for the project is "inherently unfair."

ALCOSAN serves a diverse swath of communities and ratepayers. In Fox Chapel, where some areas are served by ALCOSAN, the median annual household income is nearly $224,000; in Rankin, it's just $17,600. Peduto worries that in poorer communities, "People's cost of water and sewer bill would rise to a level that would be unaffordable, making properties non-salable and devastating communities just starting to rebound from 30 years of economic downturn."

"What we ask for is a chance to do it right," he added.

Peduto and other leaders got that chance in January: The EPA rejected ALCOSAN's plan because it "does not demonstrate that full implementation will result in compliance with all the requirements."

ALCOSAN is not speaking to media while regulators are reviewing a new proposal, which the EPA says should be in place by the end of April. But other officials are welcoming the fact that EPA is "willing to entertain a new proposal," as U.S. Rep Mike Doyle (D-Pittsburgh) puts it.

"It's nobody's fault that the system is what it is," Doyle adds. "It's a health hazard, and we want to do this in a way that's sustainable, and restructure the consent decree in order for us to mitigate the effect on ratepayers."

Doyle says some residents in his district could see as much as 8 percent of their incomes go toward water and sewage costs. And while he and U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican who represents local suburban areas, began a campaign to offer low-interest loans for communities in dire straits, Doyle says deficit-cutting in Washington means there is little federal help available.

Doyle notes that complying with regulations is easier in places like Philadelphia, where the city and county operate jointly. By contrast, Doyle says, "We're trying to herd cats in Allegheny County, which makes this process a little more challenging."

‘There needs to be a partnership'

Economics are just one reason "there needs to be a partnership between [ALCOSAN] and municipalities where the pipes reside," says Kathy Risko, executive director of the Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT). The group advocates for public policy concerns shared by Pittsburgh in its 19 adjoining municipalities.

Sewer pipes typically belong to the municipality where they lie, even if the water they carry comes from somewhere else. A community's ability to pay for their upkeep varies. As Ramage, of Etna, notes, "It's such a complex situation. You have wealthy communities, you have poor communities. You have upstream communities, downstream communities."

That's one reason Risko thinks ALCOSAN should buy up "multi-jurisdictional trunk sewers" — those that carry water from multiple municipalities — and assume the cost of upgrading them. That way, she says, "The cost will be borne [by ratepayers] across all 83 municipalities. That's where the economic-justice piece comes in."

Some officials want ALCOSAN to be more entrepreneurial in other ways. Environmentalists want to see less investment in giant infrastructure projects — which they refer to as "gray solutions" — and more in green approaches. Such projects include rain gardens and green roofs, which capture rain, and pervious pavement that allows it to soak into the ground below.

Such projects must be scattered across the whole region in order to work, but they are "really the only way to reduce raw sewage from going into our river," says county executive Rich Fitzgerald. "ALCOSAN is probably in the most vulnerable position, if you will, because they're at the end of the line. The important thing is what we do upstream, what the local authorities and local municipalities do."

The benefits of such projects can be widely dispersed as well, advocates say. "Operations and maintenance of green infrastructure" — keeping rain gardens healthy, for example — "can create job opportunities for local residents," says Emily Alvarado, interim director of Clean Rivers Campaign. The group has been arguing for greener solutions for the past three years.

Historically, though, ALCOSAN has been wary of such investments. The agency has argued that it can't base its plan on source-reduction efforts made by other governments, because it can't promise anything on their behalf — and that the effectiveness of green approaches remains unproven. In past interviews, Tim Prevost, manager of Wet Weather Programs, expressed concern about the viability and cost-effectiveness of green infrastructure. "Change happens slowly, especially when you're talking about public money. People want to see that it works."

"ALCOSAN has been saying all along, ‘We can't do stuff in communities,'" says Hoffman. But "we've worked with communities like Millvale and Homestead and they would love to do green infrastructure projects. The problem is they really need funding and support from ALCOSAN to make it happen. ... ALCOSAN could go into communities and say, ‘If we were to put a lot of green infrastructure in this certain place, it would reduce the amount of flow. We want to make that project happen.'"

Some observers say there's a structural reason that makes it difficult for ALCOSAN to consider such investment: Those communities have little voice on its board of directors. By law, ALCOSAN's board is comprised of three city appointments, three county appointments and one joint appointment.

"For municipalities, it's really important that the governance changes occur," Risko says. "To get them to transfer trunk sewers [to ALCOSAN], municipal representation on the board of ALOSAN is needed."

Still, Hoffman and others say it's a good sign that both Peduto and Fitzgerald, who make board appointments, support green approaches.

Last month, Peduto nominated three new ALCOSAN appointees, including Brenda Smith, executive director of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, which encourages community-wide solutions to stormwater issues in Pittsburgh's East End. While Pittsburgh City Council must approve the appointments, Hoffman says "nominating Brenda Smith, who's done incredible work on Nine Mile Run [watershed] area, is just a really excellent signal" about how serious local leaders are about a green approach.

"It's really critical that the EPA sees Peduto really leading the charge on green infrastructure so that they can trust him to put together a plan on green infrastructure," Hoffman adds.

Other local officials must buy in as well, says John Schombert, executive director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather, an organization that seeks to encourage a collaborative approach to stormwater issues.

"This is an organizational and governance issue," he says. "We know what the technical solutions are, but we can't get to them if we don't have a regional approach. Sometimes [the answer] will be green, sometimes it will be gray. But we don't want to make those decisions town by town by town."

A regional bail-out

Environmentalists point to other areas — Cincinnati, for example — that have faced incorporated green infrastructure to massive sewer problems, despite having fragmented local governments.

"They show that with proper leadership you can overcome that challenge," Hoffman says.

Local officials are beginning to coordinate their own efforts. Pittsburgh's own sewage-treatment agency, the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority (PWSA), is hoping to partner with nearby municipalities including Dormont and Green Tree to resolve overflows in the Saw Mill Run watershed along Route 51. City officials also hope their own efforts with developers serve as a model for other municipalities to borrow from.

"We're working with PWSA and the city to create zero-runoff conditions with a combination of bioswales, rain gardens and porous pavement," says Walnut President Todd Reidbord of the company's Bakery Square 2.0 project. "This watershed drains into Washington Boulevard" — the site of fatal flash-flooding in 2011 — "and we want to do our best to mitigate that."

Other plans are also in the works. Ramage, the Etna borough manager, notes that she and officials from other northern suburbs have been coordinating their own source-reduction efforts. Etna, for one, has a "downspout disconnect" ordinance, in which residents get a $5 refund on their bimonthly sewer bills if they redirect their downspouts from the sewer system and into rain barrels or other diversions. Etna also just contracted to resurface a public parking lot with more porous material.

Still, Ramage says concerted regional effort is needed. "We don't want to be in a place where next generations are looking at the same problem because this was managed individually." 

And Schombert, for one, says it's going to take a lot of work for the region to bail itself out of the stormwater problem. "We've just got historic issues of bad planning of how we manage water in our region," he says. "This was created in 150 years, and we can't solve it in 10 or 15. I'm hoping the EPA recognizes that."

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