July 21, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere: Efforts to Keep It Clean

By Mike Cronin, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 21--Not many things are less sexy than raw sewage flowing into Western Pennsylvania waterways.

And few are more important, says Nate Wildfire, sustainable policy coordinator for East Liberty Development, a neighborhood-based nonprofit organization.

"People don't understand that the water you flush down the toilet and the water that goes into stormwater drains go to the same place," Wildfire said.

So Wildfire and officials from an array of area organizations, ranging from the city of Pittsburgh to the Green Building Alliance, began meeting about a year-and-a-half ago to plan East Liberty projects that would prevent water and sewage from overwhelming the region's pipes.

The ideas include using porous materials for repaving, planting trees along Penn Avenue and installing rain barrels at houses under construction. If effective, they could serve as models throughout the region, said Ty Gourley, project manager for the Regional Water Management Task Force, an 11-county Western Pennsylvania group that seeks to improve water management and quality.

With an annual average of 38 inches of rain, water overwhelms Western Pennsylvania pipes so often that 16 billion gallons of raw sewage pour into local rivers each year, according to John Schombert, executive director of the 3 Rivers Wet River Program, a nonprofit in Lawrenceville.

Those events tax the ability of treatment plants to deliver clean drinking water, possibly threaten human health and violate the federal Clean Water Act.

The Pittsburgh area's situation is among the worst in the nation, ranking fourth among all states with 763 overflow locations, Gourley said.

In recent years, area government entities have reached agreements with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce sewage overflows in the next two decades. Traditionally, solutions to the problem have consisted of replacing old pipes with new ones and upgrading treatment facilities. But those approaches can dramatically increase water and sewer rates.

However, the East Liberty collaborators could save money with their strategies.

"We're exploring ways to intercept storm water before it reaches the sewer," said Andrew Potts, a water resources engineer with Cahill Associates, a consulting firm in West Chester.

Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago and Milwaukee have had success with permeable pavement and vegetated spaces by streets and sidewalks. Those designs steer rainfall into groundwater rather than the sewer system.

Grants totaling $535,000 from institutions including the Heinz Endowments and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources will help to pay for pilot projects that could start next year, Wildfire said.

Yet some, like a community garden on South St. Clair Street and a canola field on North St. Clair Street, both on formerly vacant lots, are already in operation.

"This type of vegetation reduces stormwater runoff," said Chris Koch, chief operating officer and co-founder of Growth Through Energy and Community Health, a Point Breeze nonprofit organization. "It helps more than grass in the uptake of water."


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