Participants in Sunday's Pittsburgh Triathlon looking for a clean start to the opening leg of their race were dealt a river laced with sewage overflow instead.
For about four hours mid-day Saturday, another 31/2 hours late Saturday night and 10 minutes Sunday morning, untreated wastewater spilled from the sewer system of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority into the region's rivers and creeks.
But as the triathletes gathered on the North Shore to begin their 1.5-kilometer swim at 6:45 a.m. in the Allegheny River, they did not necessarily know they would be making their way through recently contaminated water.
Some participants say they think organizers of the event should do more to communicate the current water quality so that racers can decide for themselves whether participating is worth the health risk.
Thomas Baxter, executive director of triathlon host Friends of the Riverfront, said the nonprofit group works closely with the Allegheny County Health Department to take water quality tests along the race course a day or so prior to the event.
Organizers also monitor the overflow advisory system on Allegheny County Sanitary Authority's website. The system displays green when the sewer system is in dry operation and red when wet weather overflows are in effect. Yellow, which was on display during Sunday's race, means overflows have stopped, but that minimal contact with rivers is still recommended.
Sarah Quesen, 40, of Squirrel Hill said while she is supportive of the annual Pittsburgh Triathlon, some sort of announcement from the event's director regarding water quality should be made before races begin.
"You don't have to cancel the race. You don't have to cancel the swim," Ms. Quesen said. "I just think that people need the information."
Alcosan can treat up to 250 million gallons of flow daily, but heavy rainfall overwhelms the city's combined sewers. The overflow that makes its way into local rivers carries with it fecal bacteria and other pathogens that present health risks, causing gastrointestinal issues if ingested, said Ron Voorhees, acting director of the county Health Department.
Kyle Hitz, 25, of Oakland said he came down with the worst stomach flu he had ever had in his life after participating in last year's triathlon, losing 7 pounds in three days.
This year, he only participated in the running portion of a relay with friends, but given the lack of up-to-date information on water quality issues this year, Mr. Hitz said he will definitely not participate at all next year.
"If they're willing to overlook that, what other safety shortcuts are they taking?" Mr. Hitz said.
Mr. Baxter said that next year organizers will also partner with the Three Rivers Waterkeeper to provide real-time water conditions at the race site. "Our top concern is the safety and quality of the experience for all of our racers," Mr. Baxter said.
Gavan Gideon: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-4910.