Cooperation called key to solving sewer woes
Carnegie Mellon University president Jared Cohon, the chair of the Regionalization Evaluation Review Panel, shakes the hands of panel members as he leaves a news conference Friday.
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A committee assembled by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development did the easy part by recommending Friday that area municipalities work together to address a multibillion-dollar sewer overflow problem.
Now comes the hard part -- making it happen.
The committee presented the results of a six-month study that called for the 83 communities that are part of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority to take a regional approach to solving a problem that occurs every time there is heavy rain -- untreated sewage overflowing into area streams and rivers. Alcosan and the municipalities are under a federal consent decree that mandates improvements.
Richard Hadley, executive director of the Allegheny League of Municipalities, called the recommendation for a regional approach "a good first step."
"It's not easy, and it won't be easy, but it's the right time for everyone to come together," said Mr. Hadley, who was a member of the committee. "I think the timing is right for looking for those areas where we can work together to reduce costs."
The committee, headed by CMU president Jared Cohon, recommended five major changes:
• Alcosan should change the makeup of its seven-member board, which has five Pittsburgh members, to reflect a more regional approach.
• Allegheny County should appoint a wastewater planning coordinator to identify and encourage areas of cooperation.
• Local communities should transfer multi-community trunk lines and water collection facilities to Alcosan.
• Individual communities should consolidate collection systems that already exist or set up new ones by watershed or through Alcosan.
• Communities should work together to identify ways to reduce the amount water infiltrating the system, especially green initiatives such as using rain barrels and permeable concrete to reduce runoff and the cost of corrective actions.
Last month, Alcosan submitted a $2.6 billion plan to revamp sewer systems to reduce sewage overflows in its service area in an effort to meet a mandate from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The plan, which is under review by the EPA, would eliminate about 79 percent of sewer overflows rather than completely eliminating them as required in the consent decree.
Alcosan officials at the time said the package would double rates for customers by 2026, which was as much as they could afford. Eliminating overflows would cost $3.6 billion and triple rates, the agency said.
In August, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and others called for a greener and more regional approach to the problem. On Friday he said the economic realities of the project will force the issue.
"We're forced to deal with this problem because of the consent decree," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "If everybody goes their own separate way, it will be more expensive.
"This is not something we can just decree. We're going to need everyone to participate."
Mr. Fitzgerald said he would look at the recommendation for a county-level coordinator but made no commitment.
Mr. Cohon and others noted that the Allegheny Conference played a major role in addressing air pollution and flooding problems decades ago, so it is appropriate the agency take the lead in the sewer problem. He also expects costs to foster cooperation.
"I do think this time is different," he said, referring to past failed attempts to get communities to consolidate services. "The stars are aligned. ... They want to do this."
Patricia Schaefer, president of Edgewood Council and a member of the committee, said officials must follow the adage that "water knows no municipal boundaries."
"None of us can afford to fail in this," she said, "and we can't let our neighbors fail, either."
First Published March 16, 2013 12:00 am