Dirty water: The Alcosan rate hikes are a public health remedy

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Nobody likes to see household bills go up, but nobody likes to see our waterways spoiled either.

Preventing sewage spills into the region's rivers and streams is an essential component of public health, because the overflows make drinking water sources unsafe and recreation areas unusable. Improvements that the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority must make to its inadequate infrastructure are the reason higher usage rates are a necessary evil.

The Alcosan board last week approved a 17 percent increase that will go into effect next year. For a typical homeowner, the annual sewage fee, which is $295 in 2013, will be $345 next year. Three more hikes will follow in the next three years, putting the total rate change above 50 percent by 2017.

What happens to rates after that depends on whether federal authorities decide the authority's scaled-down, $2.8 billion stormwater management plan will be sufficient or whether it will face an even larger bill -- $3.6 billion -- in order to bring its system into compliance with Environmental Protection Agency regulations by 2026.

The latest rate increases are significant, but those charges are necessary if the region is to start paying for the multibillion-dollar improvements on Alcosan's agenda for the next decade.

The new rate hikes don't come close to covering the cost of either plan. The higher rates will pay for $70 million in bonds that will be issued later this year, and most of that money will fund upgrades to Alcosan's pump station so it can handle more output, along with a whole list of other improvements. That work, though part of the larger plan, obviously isn't all of it.

Higher rates are inevitable. Since Alcosan is asking customers to resign themselves to that reality, the authority had better be sure the system it is creating will be the best one their money can buy.

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