Earlier this year, competitors in the Pittsburgh Triathlon had something on their minds besides finishing the race: They wondered if they'd get sick from the raw sewage floating in the region's rivers after a heavy rainstorm the night before.
Unfortunately, some did.
It was a moment of shame for Allegheny County, county Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. And as he spoke Wednesday before a convention of the county's sewer officials and environmental experts, he called on the audience to cooperate in finding a solution.
"One thing this region has shown the ability to do is work together. What we've been able to do over the past few years economically is the envy of the country," he said. "We need to put those skills and those abilities to work on this issue."
Mr. Fitzgerald made his speech as the keynote speaker for 15th Annual 3 Rivers Wet Weather Sewer Conference, held at the Monroeville Convention Center. The conference brought together several hundred sewer authority officials, politicians and vendors to discuss the region's stormwater management issues.
On everyone's mind: The impending consent decree between the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority and the Environmental Protection Agency, a multi-billion-dollar project the federal government says is required to bring the region into compliance with clean water laws.
Because of aging infrastructure, heavy rains send more than 9 billion gallons of sewer waste into Allegheny County rivers and creeks every year. Local residents know it by the little red flags that pop up after a rainstorm, warning swimmers to stay away.
Longtime river dwellers might just shrug and move along, Mr. Fitzgerald said. But as the county continues to attract younger residents, he says many aren't willing to put up with polluted waterways.
"There's a new generation that's moving into the region," he said. "They're younger and they're smarter and they're more environmentally conscious -- and they're demanding things a little differently."
Many involved in debating solutions have drawn a sharp distinction between "gray" infrastructure -- the pipes and sewer tunnels that traditionally channel waste -- and "green" alternatives, which seek to mitigate the effects of heavy rains naturally.
Mr. Fitzgerald touted a green approach, Although he said critics of the "gray" plan are quick to ignore what already has been done to reduce environmental impacts.
Churchill council member Lawrence Lepidi agrees. To him, calling a plan green versus gray draws an unnecessary distinction. "I'd like to see us get away from those terms. If the water gets cleaner, that's what the green objective is," he said after the address.
Andrew McGill: email@example.com or 412-263-1497. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM