July 22, 2008

A Coalition in East Liberty is Tackling Stormwater Issues

By Mike Cronin, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 22--Not many things are less sexy than raw sewage flowing into Western Pennsylvania waterways.

But few are more important, said Nate Wildfire, a policy coordinator for East Liberty Development Inc.

"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.

Officials from an array of government and nonprofit groups began meeting about a year and a half ago to plan projects that would prevent water and sewage from overwhelming the region's pipes.

The ideas include using porous materials for paving, planting trees along Penn Avenue and installing rain barrels at houses under construction. They could serve as models throughout the region, said Ty Gourley, project manager for the 11-county Regional Water Management Task Force.

That would be a boon to ratepayers. Because of federally mandated upgrades to that region's water and sewer systems, the bill for repairs will be at least $10 billion over the next two decades.

"And that's a conservative estimate," Gourley said.

To pay for work that has begun, Allegheny County Sanitary Authority rates will increase Jan. 1 to $3.25 per 1,000 gallons of water from $2.98 per 1,000 gallons used, said Alcosan spokeswoman Nancy Barylak.

The potential of the East Liberty strategies induced the Heinz Endowments to provide $340,000 in grants to fund those initiatives, said Caren Glotfelty, director of the endowments' environment program.

"What we're hoping is if East Liberty is successful, they'll be able to build it so that (those projects) will be funded by public agencies," Glotfelty said.

Barylak said Alcosan is not in a position to pay for projects or offer incentive programs.

"We're out looking for funding for our own projects to offset any future rate increases," Barylak said.

Crucial for success of any plan is the coordination of local efforts on a regional level, said Washington County Commissioner Bracken Burns, who co-chaired the committee that created Gourley's task force.

"It almost doesn't matter what all of us do individually because it's a collective problem," Burns said.

Traditional solutions to overflow have consisted of replacing old pipes and upgrading treatment facilities, both of which raise water and sewer rates.

But alternatives, such as installing a combination of porous pavement and vegetated spaces -- in parking lots, on rooftops, along streets and sidewalks -- "can reduce runoff greatly," said Jim Pillsbury, a hydraulic engineer with the Westmoreland County Conservation District.

"With a permeable parking lot, we could save three-quarters of water running off," Pillsbury said. "With a vegetated roof, we could save at least half."

The district's headquarters in Hempfield include one building with a green roof and 10 different types of permeable pavements as a demonstration, he said.

Impervious materials blanket about 58 percent of East Liberty surfaces -- roughly 30 percent is more typical among neighborhoods, Wildfire said.

That makes it Pittsburgh's prime candidate to "explore ways to intercept storm water before it reaches the sewer," said Andrew Potts, a water resources engineer with Cahill Associates Inc., a consulting firm in West Chester, who's working with Wildfire.

Trees are a favorite tool because every tree intercepts about 1,400 gallons of rainfall, said Danielle Crumrine, executive director of Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest, an East Liberty nonprofit.


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