Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fitzgerald faces Tough Choices on Sewer Strategy

The ALCOSAN Draft "Wet Weather Plan" for satisfying the federal decree mandating that we stop letting our sewers overflow when it rains thereby allowing so much poop into our rivers can be found here.

Good luck with it.

Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto describes that plan as "huge holding tanks under our rivers and a series of smaller tanks throughout the city to trap excess stormwater and wastewater until it can be safely released for treatment" -- which looks about right, near as I can tell.

He goes on to recommend that we utilize parks, ponds, community gardens, permeable pavements, green rooftops, tree plantings and rain barrels to limit the amount of rain water that needs to enter the sewage system in the first place. And furthermore, that this will save us all money on steel, concrete and boring machines. (RPghN and

Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald was reported also to be "urging" ALCOSAN at community meetings to incorporate such green tactics.


This seemed strange, since ALCOSAN stands for Allegheny County Sanitary Authority -- 3 of whose seven board members are appointed by the County Executive himself, 3 by the Mayor of Pittsburgh (Luke Ravenstahl) and one jointly by them both. Why can't Fitzgerald simply instruct his board members to do what he wants?

"Rain water is not free. We're all paying for how we handle it," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "Alcosan, if it can divert some of it to green spaces, parks and gardens, won't have to pay to treat it." (P-G, Don Hopey)

Make it so, numba one! Am I right?

Well, the main reason this is going to be difficult is...

Alcosan has said it's been on their minds -- but that implementing or ordering use of those technologies in municipalities is not within the authority's purview. Executive director Arletta Scott Williams further explained that if municipalities include "green infrastructure" in future plans they submit to Alcosan, the authority will consider them.

"We fully support that," Ms. Williams said. "We would like to see the municipalities implement more green." (P-G, Molly Born)

Neither ALCOSAN nor Allegheny County can simply tell its 130 municipalities and umpteen millions of private property owners to replace asphalt and use rain barrels. The municipalities themselves can use zoning and other law to influence development -- but that's a slow process even if they each are in the mood to undertake it.

Which leads us to the next Peduto idea...

A stormwater utility is a governmental entity – usually an independent authority or a branch of the municipal water system – that levies a fee on property owners, from owners of single family homes to owners of large retail or industrial facilities, for how much excess stormwater enters the system from their property. In effect, a stormwater utility puts a price on runoff. One of the benefits of a stormwater utility is that a cost that was previously invisible – stormwater runoff – is brought out into the open and property owners are held accountable for their impact on the overall system. We’re all already paying for stormwater in our water and sewer bills, but in a stormwater utility system the property owners that are contributing most to the problem pay the most and those that are taking steps to reduce their impact pay less or even get credits for the improvements they make. Thus, a tangible financial incentive for improving stormwater management is created. (RPghN)

... which in fairness is hardly just "a Peduto idea" at all, but he is the one pushing it lately and in the context of routine sewage treatment instead of flooding and safety. If a stormwater utility turns out to be "infeasible," he has a backup idea involving zoning overlay districts, or possibly a sliding scale for regular ALCOSAN sewage rates.


So the state would all of a sudden start charging property owners and businesses -- small businesses, mind you, job creators -- more money if they don't plant enough trees and use the right kind of pavement, so that government bureaucrats can afford to build swamps and fern gullies or whatever.

You can see how, while an elegant and progressive solution to a real quandary, this could be a bit of a lift.

With his county-wide constituency, Fitzgerald has yet to endorse charges based on stormwater runoff to pay for sewer improvements or incentivize on-location green solutions. He did as a candidate criticize his Republican opponent Raja for increasing sewer fees in Mt. Lebanon -- though perhaps only for "not owning up to it" in regards to certain counter-accusations.

At any rate, let's call up that Fitzgerald quote again... "Rain water is not free. We're all paying for how we handle it. Alcosan, if it can divert some of it to green spaces, parks and gardens, won't have to pay to treat it."

Fitzgerald probably was not even talking about producing new green stuff -- simply diverting some water to green stuff that already exists, instead of building bigger and more tanks. A notion which appears not to be in the ALCOSAN draft plan.

Which brings us back to ALCOSAN's makeup -- for this plan was years in the making.

Three and a half board members are appointed by the County Executive, it is true. Until recently that county executive was Dan Onorato.

Dan Onorato was something of a Grey Infrastructure guy, having a solid relationship with several engineering contractors. Onorato appointee and board chair State Rep. Harry Readshaw approaches these questions from a similar background. Heck, even Onorato's solution for animal control was grey (lasers, fencing, poison gas) rather than green (moving eggs). And finally of course there is the Mayor's share of ALCOSAN to consider.

The path to any significant and effective "green" water management in the region, whether through a stormwater utility or something similar, will lead ultimately through ALCOSAN. If Rich Fitzgerald is going to work towards these allegedly more affordable and sustainable solutions, he may indeed need to embrace a campaign which will entail clashes and involve wagering some real political capital.


  1. If anybody can find half a million buckets for cheap, I have another idea to keep fecal matter out of the sewer when it rains.

  2. making property owners internalize externalities...that's just not american!

  3. Another way to raise fees on residents for more stuff that is unproven to actually work but hey it's green! Thanks Bill

  4. Yeah, you know, I got to agree for now with 7:44. Show me the carfax.

    The green savings margin sounds like it would be hard to predict in terms of milliliters of H20, and slower to adopt than "Dig and Assemble, Me Hearties." So we may not practically be talking about "saving money" with green so much as later, additional investment in additionally helpful features -- for certain necessitating a storm water district or similar. I confess I don't know much about the expense of water treatment at facilities; that may be key.