It is no secret that Pittsburgh, like many similar cities, has a water issue. This issue being that the amount of rainfall in the region coupled with the amount of hard, concrete surfaces (grey infrastructure) creates a water overload that water treatment plants, like Allegheny County Sanitation Authority (ALCOSAN), do not have the capacity to treat. This becomes an issue every time it rains, which in Pittsburgh is a large portion of the year. Storm water runs off all of the grey infrastructure within the city picking up debris, chemicals, bacteria, and raw sewage within the sewer system known as combined sewer overflows (CFOs) that ultimately find its way into our streams and rivers. Ten billion gallons of untreated runoff enter the water ways around Pittsburgh each year, therefore leading to the Environmental Protection Agency’s demand that the city come up with a long term solution for treating this overflow.
It is also no secret that Pittsburgh has a large population of people who like to use the waterways for recreation such as boating, jet skiing, and fishing. This poses a health risk to those who come into contact with the water because at times of high CSO there is a much higher risk of being exposed to bacteria, such as E.coli, within the water. Thankfully, ALCOSAN is aware of this issue and has developed several programs to notify the public when the waterways may contain unsafe levels of bacteria. Their CSO Flag program is a series of flags posted at various points along the rivers to alert passersby of potential dangers, and their Sewer Overflow Advisory Key (SOAK) alerts members by email or text message of the potential dangers within the waterways.
Although both programs can be useful to those who take advantage of them, they are just a temporary band-aid for a much bigger problem. ALCOSAN has proposed a plan to construct a giant holding tank under the ground to catch the overflow and hold it until the treatment plant has the capacity to treat the water and return it to the river. However, the city of Pittsburgh is in favor of a different approach that would expand upon ALCOSANs current capacity of treatment so that the plant is able to treat the CSO as needed. The city has asked the EPA for a 10 year window in order to properly evaluate which method would be best for the city in terms of the sustainability of the viable solutions.
The final solution is still to be determined, but will require cooperation between the city of Pittsburgh, ALCOSAN, and the EPA. Each proposed solution will be extremely costly and take years to complete.