Riverlife: Antique sewage system cannot persist in Pittsburgh

In dealing with dirty water, the Strip District could be our secret weapon, says Riverlife’s president and CEO

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Pardon the pun, but the recent news about Pittsburgh’s sewer system stinks.

There’s no delicate way to put it: our city’s antique sewer system, like those of many older Eastern cities, combines both the rainwater that falls on our streets and rooftops with the wastewater that comes from our bathrooms. When a heavy rain falls in the region, the sewer system is overwhelmed and all that untreated waste flows directly into our rivers.

The negative effect on river habitat is tremendous and potentially hazardous to the people who want to swim and participate in river-based recreation and sporting events like the recent Pittsburgh Triathlon. In headlines from other parts of the city, the crumbling sewer pipes that were installed when your great-grandparents were young are causing costly leaks and creating car-swallowing sinkholes.

Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are looking to find new ways to deal with these old problems, and we are fortunate to have a wealth of experts in this region who are not afraid to get their hands dirty.

Riverlife and over 80 other groups belong to Pittsburgh’s Green Infrastructure Network, headed up by 3 Rivers Wet Weather and harnessing the brainpower of groups like the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, Penn State Urban Center, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and a host of others who have been studying the issue for years and making recommendations to our regional wastewater authorities. Many of those partners also form the Mayor Bill Peduto-endorsed Clean Rivers Campaign, which sees rain barrels, green roofs, rain gardens and more trees as central to cleaning up our act.

To address the combined sewer overflow problem, you have to follow the path that water takes, starting with the rain that falls from the skies as it rolls down our hills, roads, sidewalks, hot parking lots and rooftops, picking up oils and toxins along the way. All of that water must be calmed, collected, cooled and ultimately cleansed before it hits the rivers or we are compounding our pollution levels.

Solving the sewer problem starts by looking at the entire watershed network, and cleaning water depends on finding the points along the way where managing stormwater can happen. Because stormwater flow is a natural process, the solution must match a nearly infinite variety of site conditions with regard to topography, drainage patterns, soil composition and land use, to name a few.

The great news is that Pittsburgh’s riverfronts can be our not-so-secret weapon. Our riverbanks offer a final opportunity to intervene before the polluted stormwater is discharged into the river. In a happy coincidence, real estate development is queuing up in riverfront neighborhoods like the Strip District, Lawrenceville and Hazelwood.

The Allegheny riverfront alone offers 60-odd blocks of prime riverfront beginning at the convention center and stretching upriver for nearly 6.5 miles. One only needs to read the newspaper to see the tremendous building boom of new residential, office and retail development that is transforming the Strip along that same stretch.

Imagine 6.5 miles of Allegheny riverfront transformed, block by block, into a long, linear green park that runs on the river side of these new developments. Imagine children’s playgrounds, fishing piers, native gardens and picnic areas where families can relax after a Saturday spent shopping in the bustling Penn Avenue stores. And imagine that this 30-block-long riverfront park serves double duty to collect and naturally treat polluted stormwater underground before it reaches the river (not to mention providing a buffer from river flooding).

If it sounds like a dream, Riverlife wants to assure you it’s not. The potential of the Strip District and Allegheny riverfront for state-of-the-art sustainable development was so great that it caught the attention of the federal government, and this river corridor was the focus of the federally funded Allegheny Riverfront Green Boulevard planning process. Riverlife, along with the city of Pittsburgh and other partners, strategically studied its opportunities for public open space, real estate development and transit options.

Now in 2014, the predictions for growth are coming true and the Strip District is ready to come alive with new development — and the chance to build a significant stormwater landscape along the river that is also a recreational “must see” destination for residents and our region’s visitors.

Updating our region’s ancient sewers is phenomenally expensive, as the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority learned when proposing a $2 billion sewer improvement plan that was ultimately deemed insufficient in complying with water quality goals by the Environmental Protection Agency. This determination only strengthens the case to look at alternate solutions.

The beauty of building a stormwater landscape along the Allegheny is that we can meet and exceed a triple bottom line test. With one investment, we can ensure that our riverfronts are more beautiful, more fun and infinitely healthier: a showcase for our greatest natural resources and a celebration of clean water in the heart of a surging city.

Lisa Schroeder is president and CEO of Riverlife, a nonprofit organization with the mission of reclaiming, restoring and promoting Pittsburgh’s riverfronts (lisa@riverlifepgh.org).

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