I was honored recently to be invited to speak to a work session meeting of the Pittsburgh City Council on plans that are currently being considered to green the city’s Long Term Control Plan to address combined sewer overflows into the famous three rivers region. I link here to several of the news reports and editorials that stemmed from that hearing.
Gray and green: Sewer project should aid environment (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 19)
Council Members Urged to Pursue Green Solutions to Storm Water Overflow Problem (WESA Radio, November 18)
Pittsburgh water authority to borrow $80 million (TribLive, November 19)
Pittsburgh City Council Post-Agenda (Clean Rivers Campaign blog, November 26)
Something special is happening in Pittsburgh, but let me provide a bit of background before I return to this remarkable story.
For those new to these issues, just over 750 cities in the United States have sewer systems, either in whole or part, that are designed to convey both sanitary sewage (connections to bathrooms and building drains of all sorts) and stormwater runoff (the rainfall that flows into stormdrains, typically that flank the curbs on city streets). These systems are called combined sewers. More than a century ago, combined sewers were designed and built for waste and stormwater to flow untreated into our waterways. Today, these systems are now connected to wastewater treatment plants designed to treat and clean this water before being discharged. However, the challenge today is that in many rainstorms, the volume of stormwater flowing into the pipes is so great (beyond the capacity of many wastewater treatment plants) that they fill up and then overflow – causing combined sewer overflows (CSOs) directly to our waterways. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and good public policy, directs that cities implement a so-called Long Term Control Plan to resolve CSOs. Everyone agrees that a unhealthy mixture of sewage and stormwater run-off should not be flowing untreated to the waters of our country.
Back to the story in the Pittsburgh region – which is devising a plan to reduce CSOs in their city. Pittsburgh as a city is served by the fast-improving Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), which connects to the regional treatment system run by the Allegheny County Sanitation District (ALCOSAN). PWSA and ALCOSAN, and many other local communities that connect into the ALCOSAN service area would need to work together to implement any solution to CSOs. The great question being asked in Pittsburgh, and other cities around the country including the District of Columbia, is whether to deploy a Long Term Control Plan with grey or green solutions, or a hybrid of the two.
What is the distinction between gray and green? In short, the gray solution essentially vastly expands the size of the combined system by building huge tunnels underneath the existing undersized sewers, which then take the flow that would otherwise overflow, and drops it into the tunnel to be conveyed to the regional treatment facility. This solution does have advantages – its performance is well documented and easy to calculate (the geometry of the tunnel dictates a clear capture level for the CSOs). But gray infrastructure has the disadvantages that it is unseen to the public above, enhancing one of the great challenges water utilities already face –which is the public is almost completely unaware of the nature and importance of the work we do. Plus, gray infrastructure handles the flow after it comes into the sewer system.
A green solution is premised on rebuilding the natural systems that would hold stormwater as a useful and productive resource at the surface of the land, before it ever reaches the sewer system. The goal is the same – to capture stormwater that would otherwise mix with sewage and then overflow into our waterbodies – but the technique is preventative (keep the stormwater out of the sewers), productive (how can we use stormwater to enhance our communities) and scalable (you can always build more at a relatively low marginal cost). There are some areas where it is more difficult than gray infrastructure – performance is not as easy to calculate or maintain over time, and its implementation requires a broad coalition of interests to work together to transform the landscape of our lives.
What is not special about Pittsburgh is that they face this challenge. As I mentioned, more than 750 communities have faced, or are facing, the same challenge. What is special is the grand coalition that has been formed to encourage a shift from a gray solution to what they are calling a “green first” solution. With green first, a remedy to CSOs would be designed to maximize the use of green infrastructure to keep CSOs out of the sewers in the first place, and then gray would be designed to achieve any remaining water quality goals that still need to be met. The coalition – formed in Pittsburgh United – and led by dynamic leaders like Barney Oersler, Brenda Smith and Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, has one of the most diverse set of groups I have ever seen – diverse by age, race, geography, religion, income, business and more.
On Monday, November 18, the Pittsburgh City Council held a working roundtable meeting at which Pittsburgh United was able to field a host of speakers describing the opportunity that green infrastructure affords the city. I tip my hat to Councilwoman Theresa Kail Smith for hosting the meeting, and to the six of the eight council members who attended, including the Mayor-elect Councilman Bill Peduto. I was fortunate to be one of those speakers. Yet perhaps the most impressive part of the day was the press conference that was held just before the meeting began. In the room were labor, environmental, religious and community interests that were all speaking with one voice. Look here for more information about Pittsburgh United: PittsburghUnited.org.
In my testimony, I highlighted the top ten reasons that the question of grey versus green – or in my estimation the most likely hybrid of the two – is such a grand question for any city and region to ask carefully and get right. The level of expenditure we are considering, no matter what action is selected, will be in the billions of dollars over more than a decade of work – likely the biggest public investment that a region will make in this generation. That’s right – the biggest public investment Washington, DC; Cleveland, Ohio; St Louis, Missouri; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania will make in a generation! Obviously, that scale of effort deserves the most careful of thought and planning. My top ten issues:
What solution allows a water utility to best communicate and connect to the people they serve? How can we engage the public in an effort to be part of protecting water quality and learning about the system that delivers this life-giving resource every day?
What solution enables a water utility to best justify and seek support for the extraordinary rate increases that will be necessary to pay for a solution that is resolving a sewer design flaw that dates back a century? Current ratepayers will be asked to pay to solve a problem that was created a hundred years ago, and will be paying for a solution that should resolve the problem for the next 100 years. That is a huge responsibility and burden to put on the ratepayers of today.
What solution can help us revitalize urban neighborhoods? We know that revitalizing cities is a principal answer to so many of our current environmental and community ills – whether it be sprawling development eating up farmland in the countryside, or the blight of abandoned urban lots. Revitalizing our urban neighborhoods can help reverse this trend, strengthening our urban core.
What solution can help us build local businesses – businesses that start, grow and become integral parts of our local communities? Can certain solutions offer more opportunity for local businesses to flourish, helping to return much of the money raised for this work back into the community that is raising it in the first place?
What solution can best improve the local tax and rate base? Both the cities and counties contemplating these questions must recognize that the businesses and jobs created will turn around and pay taxes to the jurisdictions, and become new ratepayers to the utilities. Which solution will help rebuild local coffers as the work progresses?
What solution can help us create jobs for those who desperately need them, and help transform some from seeking public aid to becoming tax-paying members of the community. With the size of the investments we are contemplating, realizing that we may be able to offer an answer to one of the principal questions of the day – good, steady employment – must be foremost in our minds.
What solution can help us improve the local ecology and urban habitat of the urban centers and suburbs where this work will be accomplished? Local ecology can add biodiversity to our cities, improve air and water quality, and simply improve the quality of our day-to-day experience of life.
What solution can help us respond to both the causes and consequences of climate change? Are there steps that we can take that reduce our generation of greenhouse gases, and also mitigate the challenges associated with more extreme weather that climate change predicts – and that we seem already to be experiencing?
What solution can help deliver us cleaner air? Many health ailments are connected to air that is not clean enough at both the ground level, and as a result of smog that comes to us from power plants farther away? Can solutions we consider reduce our reliance on power that generates smog from afar, and perhaps help improve the quality of the air we breathe all around us?
What solution can help respond to challenges to water quality and water quantity? How can we both improve the quality of the water flowing in our water bodies, and also manage the extremes of drought and floods that beset us with grave environmental and economic consequences?
I have been very open in my assertion that a green strategy, which requires work done by local workers, often undertaken by local firms, improving the local landscape to improve water quality and quantity, must be a principal element of any solution to manage combined sewage. Think to yourself about each of the questions I ask above, and review in your mind how the various options will perform. I believe the answer in this context becomes nearly self-evident.
By the way, I also think that the most likely answer in every case will be a hybrid solution – we will need solutions that combine (yes, that word again – but in a good context now!) the best attributes of gray and green infrastructure. That is what we plan for the District of Columbia – but that is for a later post!
In my view, every great city is defined by its relationship to water. Pittsburgh, the city of three rivers, is one such city – and a great one in my estimation. Pittsburgh, like so many others, faces making a decision that will impact people that will someday walk its streets, yet today are not even born. I am honored to have been included in the conversation about what should be done – and hope that the Pittsburgh region embraces the ideas put forth by Pittsburgh United and selects a path that is green first, then grey too, to make sure the region and its people prosper and grow even more healthy in the long decades ahead.