Region's Water Is 'Priceless Asset' That Needs Adequate Investment
Southwestern Pennsylvania's water resources are key to the region's economic vitality and quality of life but they need better protection, community leaders said as they launched the region-wide Campaign for Clean Water.
"Thanks to reductions in industrial pollution, fish and other wildlife have returned to the region's rivers, which today serve as a centerpiece of recreation and development," said Dr. Jared L. Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University. "But more cleanup is still needed to fully realize the benefits our waterways and groundwater can provide."
Southwestern Pennsylvania enjoys one of the most reliable watersheds in the country, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Meanwhile, in competing regions of the country such as Tampa, Atlanta, and New York, residents must live with restrictions on when they can water their lawns, wash their cars, or be served a glass of water in a restaurant.
Southwestern Pennsylvania's waters are a priceless asset for residents, recreation, industry, and agriculture. To adequately protect that resource, we must make greater investments in infrastructure, and spend that money more wisely, Cohon and other community leaders said. They announced the launch of the Campaign for Clean Water, an initiative to mobilize residents and public officials to cooperate regionally to plan, finance, build, and repair the sewer, water, and septic systems that southwestern Pennsylvania needs.
Without such an effort, Cohon and others said, the region's waters will continue to suffer from a quiet crisis hidden from public view -- contamination from malfunctioning and inadequate sewer and septic systems. Southwestern Pennsylvania will risk a loss of momentum in economic development efforts and a threat to its quality of life, as well as the likelihood of more severe and expensive enforcement actions from state and federal regulators.
"I have seen how important a community's environment and quality of life can be when trying to recruit talented faculty and students to Carnegie Mellon University," said Dr. Cohon, a nationally recognized expert on water issues.
Those joining Cohon in the Campaign for Clean Water effort include public officials, business leaders, environmentalists, utility experts, and regulators, such as Greene County Commission Chairman Dave Coder; Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey; Barbara McNees, President of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce; Bill Strickland, founder of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild; Stephen Craig, Interim Director of the Western PA office of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council; and Robert Polczynski, Chairman of the Kiski Valley Water Pollution Control Authority Board of Directors.
"Fifty years ago, this region saw that smoke threatened to endanger our public health and choke off our economic vitality. The people of southwestern Pennsylvania met the challenge with energy and vision. That effort became world-famous. This generation must make that same sort of commitment to preserve our region for the generations that will follow us," said Lawrence M. Wagner, President and CEO of the Hillman Co.
According to a poll commissioned by the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Economy League (PEL), nearly 9 out of 10 residents in the 11-county region said they would take steps to protect the region's waters if they knew they were contributing to the contamination of the area's rivers, streams, and well water. But fewer than 40 percent of residents report having seen, heard, or read anything about contamination in the region's lakes, rivers, and streams.
A two-year-long study conducted by the PEL under the guidance of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Water and Sewer Infrastructure Project Steering Committee led by Dr. Cohon outlines in great detail the problems facing each of the 11 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania. The report, Investing in Clean Water, found that:
-- When it rains, billions of gallons of raw sewage mixed with storm water overflow into the region's rivers and streams. Over the past two years, the Allegheny, the Monongahela, and the Ohio rivers were unsafe for human contact one out of every two days during the summer boating and recreation season because of sewage contamination.
-- Aging and damaged sewer and septic systems are leaking untreated wastes into waterways throughout the 11-county region, making the waterways less attractive to use and enjoy, and threatening public health.
-- Thousands of wells across the region are unsafe for drinking water, but residents don't have access to safe, reliable public water supplies because of inadequate infrastructure investment.
-- Former mill sites, major highway interchanges, and other strategic locations for business development lack adequate water and sewer service for modern buildings. This forces development to less desirable locations, or out of the region entirely.
Every county in the region -- Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Somerset, Washington, and Westmoreland -- suffers from each of these problems. (The complete report, an executive summary, and other information are available at http://www.campaignforcleanwater.com/.)
"Cleaning up and protecting the region's water is good for the environment, it's good for business, and it's good for all of southwestern Pennsylvania," said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. "This is an issue that touches many aspects of life, which is why you find so many different people and groups supporting the Campaign for Clean Water. I am particularly impressed that much of the leadership for this effort comes from the business community."
Regional cooperation is the answer
Investing in Clean Water concludes that the only way to address the challenge in a cost-effective and efficient manner is for counties and municipalities to cooperate on a regional solution. The report recommends that southwestern Pennsylvania act regionally to:
-- Plan and prioritize water and wastewater investments. A Regional Goal and Priority-Setting Organization is needed to ensure that resources go to projects with the most "bang for the buck." The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission is well suited to fill this role.
-- Help communities find the most cost-effective solutions and educate the public. A Regional Education and Technical Assistance Organization is needed to assemble a "toolbox" of technical know-how and make it available to all involved entities, to create and implement public education programs, and to forge multi-municipal coalitions. 3 Rivers Wet Weather Inc. already provides such services within the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority service area, and its mandate could be expanded to include the entire region.
-- Advocate for legislative and regulatory action, and for state and federal funding. A Regional Advocacy Organization is needed to speak with one voice, so the region can push for regulatory changes that would allow for innovative solutions, better secure outside funding for improvements and new infrastructure, and advance legislation to ease the cost burden for low-income homeowners and communities. The Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, assisted by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Growth Alliance, is well suited to organize such an effort.
Without that regional cooperation, the cost of making the necessary repairs and upgrades to water and wastewater systems is estimated at $10 billion or more over the next 10 years. That is more than twice the level of investment made in those systems over the past decade.
The region's residents support a cooperative approach, according to a poll conducted for the Pennsylvania Economy League and summarized in the Investing in Clean Water report. More than two-thirds of the region's sewer customers -- 69% -- said they would support combining their municipality's system with a neighboring system if it would lower their sewer bills or reduce the need for rate increases.* And most of the supporters would be in favor of using part of their sewer bill to fix problems in another community if it saved them money on their overall bill, the survey found.
Communities in southwestern Pennsylvania and other parts of the country have, in fact, been able to lower costs through cooperative efforts. For example, three Indiana County communities -- Armagh, Marion Center, and Pine Township -- kept their monthly sewer rates lower by $8.88, $16.17, and $21.20, respectively, by working jointly under the Indiana County Municipal Services Authority to provide sewer service to 700 homes and a school. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency statistics show that a single large sewer treatment plant can cost 25 percent less than three smaller plants with the same combined capacity.
Yet southwestern Pennsylvania has more than 200 sewer service providers and 300 water suppliers, more than half of which serve fewer than 1,500 customers. And on average, systems in communities with fewer than 1,500 people spend 50 percent more on billing and other administrative costs than systems in larger communities, according to state data.
Building on our success
Southwestern Pennsylvania's rivers are a centerpiece for business and recreation. The region ships and receives more tons of cargo than Los Angeles or Baltimore, and the 11 counties in the Pittsburgh Port District are the 14th busiest port of any kind in the country. Corporate headquarters and entertainment complexes are springing up along the riverbanks. A restored Nine Mile Run is one of the attractions of a new luxury housing development in Pittsburgh. Whitewater rafters and kayakers flock to the Youghiogheny River and Slippery Rock Creek. Boaters and fishermen head for rivers and streams that were once nearly lifeless because of industrial pollution. But even today, some of those waterways can become unsafe for human contact because of sewage contamination.
-- In Allegheny County alone, more than 16 billion gallons of mixed rainwater and raw sewage overflow into area waterways each year because the current system can't handle the volume. Most of this problem is created by malfunctioning sewer pipes in individual homeowners' yards.
-- As many as 27,000 households in the region dump their sewage into ditches or streams with no treatment at all.
-- An estimated 26,000 homes or more have septic systems leaking improperly treated sewage into water where sportsmen fish, children play, and wells draw drinking water.
-- 500,000 residents are at risk from unreliable or polluted water supplies, inadequate wastewater systems, or both. Untreated fecal matter can carry pathogens--including giardia, Cryptosporidium, and E. Coli--which can sicken otherwise healthy people and kill susceptible individuals, such as senior citizens and infants.
Households on public sewer systems and private septic systems both contribute to the problem. Too few of the region's 260,000 households that have septic systems perform adequate maintenance and repairs on their systems, researchers found. And southwestern Pennsylvania's steep slopes and clay soils make the region one of the worst in the country in which to operate a conventional septic system. And that means billions of gallons of improperly treated waste water leak into the region's wells, streams, and the soil each year.
For the public sewer systems, some of the biggest problems are found in homeowners' front yards -- aging and defective underground pipes, known as laterals, which connect individual homes to the large sewer pipes that run under the street.
Many different agencies have a role in addressing the problem. Sewer authorities own and operate large treatment plants that may have to be updated or enlarged. Individual municipalities collectively own thousands of miles of aging pipes that contribute to the problem. But homeowners are responsible for their own laterals, which collectively make up about half the miles of sewer pipes in a typical system and may be the biggest single cause of sewer system overflows in some areas.
Unlike drinking water pipes that leak out when they break because they are full of water, laterals are empty most of the time, so cracks and breaks allow groundwater or storm water to leak in. That water takes up space that could be used to carry wastewater. If enough extra water gets in to the network of sewer pipes, there isn't enough room for all the contaminated water to be carried to the local treatment plant. When that happens, the contaminated water is dumped into the area's rivers and waterways.
If the leaking of storm water and groundwater into a sewer system is not stemmed, officials may have to install larger sewer mains and expand treatment facilities, which can be a more expensive solution than fixing or replacing broken laterals.
"The challenge is to educate people: Each of us has to act as an environmental steward, protecting our waters for the future," Dr. Cohon said. "Doing nothing is not an option."
Homeowners are willing to do their part if they are aware of the problem, the PEL survey found. The survey found that 84% said they would feel obligated to repair their lateral if they learned it was malfunctioning and contaminating the waterways or groundwater supplies.* And 98 percent of homeowners with septic systems would repair them if they knew they were malfunctioning.**
Efforts are already underway to solve some of the region's problems. For example, 3 Rivers Wet Weather Inc. has been working with the 83 communities served by the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) on an approach to managing their sewer overflows that is both affordable to the communities and meets regulatory requirements. As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, working closely with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Allegheny County Health Department, has proposed a new type of agreement that will set the communities on a 12-year course to fix their systems. Nearly all the communities are participating in working groups organized by 3 Rivers Wet Weather, and 56 communities are also participating in projects funded by 3 Rivers Wet Weather to demonstrate innovative technologies and regional approaches for finding the most cost-effective solutions.
Ignoring the problem will lead to higher costs to fix it in the future, Cohon and others said. Delays increase the probability that the EPA will impose fines or solutions that will cost much more in the long run. The results can be devastating. When the EPA moved aggressively against Penn Hills, two municipal sewer officials and the municipality itself were convicted of environmental crimes. Penn Hills spent more than $50 million to connect to the ALCOSAN system and to build holding tanks to keep sewage out of the rivers during rainy weather. The EPA-imposed solution required dramatically higher sewer rates, but did nothing to address the long-term deterioration of the Penn Hills system. As a result, the community will face additional improvements costing millions of dollars more.
In 1998, at the request of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC), the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Economy League (PEL) undertook a preliminary examination of the extent of the problems. This review indicated that the potential impact of water and wastewater problems on the region's future economic growth and quality of life warranted a full-scale examination. In 1999, the Economy League initiated the Southwestern Pennsylvania Water and Sewer Infrastructure Project.
Nearly 60 private and public sector leaders and experts from across the region agreed to serve as the Steering Committee for the project. The members of the committee represented a wide range of interests, and included elected officials, regulators, developers, environmentalists, municipal authority managers, planners, business executives, utility experts, academics, engineers, and others. Dr. Cohon agreed, at the request of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, to be chairman of the Steering Committee.
During 2000 and 2001, the Steering Committee examined current and anticipated weaknesses in the region's public sewer systems, on-lot septic systems, and drinking water systems; the extent of non-point-source pollution; and the need for additional water and wastewater infrastructure to support new development. The Steering Committee focused its efforts on wastewater infrastructure, including sewers and septic systems, because it saw the most pressing regional needs in this area.
Financial support was provided by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the Howard Heinz Endowment, the McCune Foundation, and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. In-kind support was provided by numerous individuals and organizations.
The Pennsylvania Economy League, Inc., Western Division, is a nonprofit, civic organization whose mission is to provide the research and analysis for the business, civic, and governmental leadership of western Pennsylvania in efforts to effectuate change to make our region a better place to live, work, and do business.
* The survey was conducted on behalf of the PEL by Public Opinion Strategies, which interviewed 800 homeowners in southwestern Pennsylvania. The margin of error for most answers reported here was 4.5 %.