Impending sewage costs mean we'd best go green

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Here's a list of American cities Pittsburgh will never be on: those most likely to run out of water.

Orlando, Atlanta, Tucson, Las Vegas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Phoenix, Houston and Los Angeles -- all these Sun Belt places we once envied may soon have thirsts they can't quench.

Pittsburgh has exactly the opposite problem: too much water in the wrong places too much of the time. Given a choice, I'll take our problem, and I've already adopted Pittsburgh architect Don Carter's suggestion that we ditch the old labels (Sun Belt and Rust Belt) for new ones (Drought Belt and Water Belt).

Much of the Pittsburgh region may be on a drought watch in these dog days of August, but we're still damp compared to Texas, where drought is a way of life. Communities suck on their aquifers like J.R. Ewing at last call.

I offer all that for a little perspective before getting to our own expensive water problem: When it rains, our ancient sewer system overflows, and that could cost billions of dollars to fix.

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority took seven years to negotiate a January 2008 federal consent decree to stop rain-driven raw sewage overflows into our streams and rivers. With a price tag of $3.6 billion, it would be the most expensive public works project in the region's history. Alcosan says (correctly) that ratepayers can't afford that.

Even a lesser $2.8 billion plan, which doesn't even meet the consent agreement's minimum sewage-control goals, would eventually require doubling the annual average rate of $262 in the Alcosan service area covering 83 municipalities.

So it's heartening that a coalition of environmentalists is telling the feds to hold their water. There may be a better -- and cheaper -- way to go here. The premise is simplicity itself: If water doesn't run off into the storm sewers in the first place, it doesn't have to be treated in the second place.

The Environmental Protection Agency has sent some signals it's ready to listen, and Alcosan will try to negotiate a better deal with "green solutions'' in the mix.

Jennifer Kennedy is the director of the Clean Rivers Campaign, a coalition of local groups that believes a little green thinking might mean a little more green in wallets, too. Take mall parking lots. Please.

I'd mentioned to her that I'd been sucked into the Robinson Town Centre/Mall at Robinson vortex last weekend in search of a volleyball for my daughter. It was my maiden voyage to the deeper recesses of this vast canyon of consumerism, and I made more wrong turns than the last-place finisher on "Dancing with the Stars.'' Along the way, I was awed by the sheer acreage of impermeable surfaces that weren't there a generation ago, from the flat roofs of the superstores to the flat seas of parking spaces, which bring tens of thousands of gallons of runoff every time it rains.

That can be lessened with simple fixes, Ms. Kennedy says. Most mall parking lots are dotted with sickly little trees because the only water they get is what falls on those tiny diamonds of soil that are their beds. Trees could suck up a lot more water if the parking lots were designed to send water to those beds.

Then there are green roofs. The Allegheny County Office Building has one, and the county says the energy savings may be as much as $80,000 in just the two years that officials got high with flora. It not only insulates the building and keeps it cooler in summer, it sucks up the first inch of every rainfall.

Reality check: We can't just sing "We Are the World'' while we roll out rain barrels and put flower beds on every flat roof we can climb. We're going to have to finance huge new storage tunnels, sewer lines and expanded treatment facilities to treat billions of gallons of raw sewage and stormwater overflows, too.

But the EPA should encourage Alcosan to work cheaper, greener and smarter, in the same way it makes sense for the rest of us to close blinds during the day and open windows at night so we don't have to run the air conditioner at full blast 24/7. It's common sense.

"I'm a regular person who's looking for solutions," Ms. Kennedy said. "These made so much sense to me. It just happens to be an environmental campaign.''

I'd drink to that were I not so concerned about the runoff.


Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.


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