Get Out: Alcosan launches water-quality alert system
July 2, 2016 12:00 AM
ALCOSAN's new automated water-safety alert system is designed to inform recreational users of Pittsburgh's waterways about periods of sewage overflow. Shown here, sewage overflow empties into the Ohio River.
By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh’s water treatment system is a patchwork of interconnected sewerage pipes, water drains and pump houses built in bits and pieces over decades under changing regulatory guidelines. Under normal conditions sewage and rainwater drainages flow separately through to the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority’s central treatment facility on the Ohio River.
But the system’s carrying capacity falls short of the city’s current needs. When it rains, sewage and water drainage mix into a commingled overflow that overwhelms system and spills untreated into the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers. Yuck.
A new interactive Alcosan web page alerts recreational water users during periods when raw sewage is pouring into the rivers. The alert system expands upon a previous notification regime mandated under a federal consent decree that requires Pittsburgh to upgrade its antiquated sewerage system and stop the untreated discharges. The order is expected to ultimately cost some $2 billion.
“We have nearly 1 million people flushing their toilets every day, and every one of them needs to know their role in making the system work,” said Alcosan spokeswoman Jeanne Clark. “We clean 250 million gallons of water every day from the 83 municipalities in the city of Pittsburgh. We want people to realize these are natural bodies of water — we’re not going to stop them from using them — but we want to alert them when there’s an increased health risk.”
The E. coli contamination that occurs during sewerage overflow is believed to have a negative impact on aquatic wildlife and is particularly dangerous for people with open wounds or diminished resistance to infection. Additional biological threats, as well as anything washed into water drainages and streams, may exist in the untreated wastewater.
When sewage overflow or combined rainwater/sewage overflow is detected at the central treatment plant, the Sewage Overflow Advisory Key issues water-quality alerts in several ways. Visitors at the Alcosan website can link to a page showing the Current SOAK Status report and tracking previous overflows.
The free-to-access site can be easily programmed to shoot text messages or email alerts to computers and communication devices. Don’t venture online? When heavy rain causes the sewerage system to overflow, orange flags are raised at eight locations on the banks of the three rivers alerting recreational boaters, anglers, water skiers and anyone in contact with the water of the increased yuck factor.
To access SOAK or program automatic text or email alerts, visit www.alcosan.org.
John Hayes: 412-263-1991, email@example.com.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.