Grey, Green and Everything in Between: ALCOSAN

Pittsburgh has a problem with combined sewer overflow, yet after years of negotiations and planning, the question of what will remediate the problem is still up in the air.

Posted by Weenta Girmay

In January of this year, The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN)’s plan to stop combined sewage overflow, the plan that took “more than 10 years of research, collaboration and analysis” to develop, was rejected.

The plan was a part of ALCOSAN’s contractual agreement with the EPA that it would act to stop combined sewer overflow and meet the standards set by the 1972 Clean Water Act.

In an official statement following the plan’s rejection, Mayor Peduto said he felt the plan as it was submitted didn’t go far enough. He’s asked the White House “for an opportunity to build a stronger plan, a plan that incorporates a ‘green-first’ approach to save ratepayers money, improve our neighborhoods, and create good local jobs, all while improving water quality and reducing flooding.”

I spoke with Emily Alvarado, a representative from the Clean Rivers Campaign, an organization that advocates the benefits of a “green-first” approach to the problem.

Grey Infrastructure vs. Green Infrastructure

When talking about sewage overflow, there are “green” solutions and there are “grey” solutions. Namely, the “grey” solution to managing storm water was the a $2 billion dollar plan to build 3 underground tunnels that would collect sewage overflow. These storage tunnels would then treat the overflow by pumping it into expanded ALCOSAN facilities. The creation of these tunnels was the focus of the plan ALCOSAN submitted to the EPA.

“Green” solutions refer to a variety of storm water management strategies.

These strategies include:

  • permeable pavement instead of concrete pavement
  • bioswales (green landscaping designed to hold surface runoff)
  • rain barrels and rain gardens
  • the planting of trees and other plants that retain water through their roots

The Clean Rivers Campaign calls for investment into green solutions first, followed by implementation of grey strategies where necessary.

“If we start down the path of building tunnels, we’re not going to have a single dollar left over for green. We’ll never figure out what we’re able to succeed or achieve with green solutions. So they might end up being this added value where you put a rain barrel on a street and you say ‘we invested in green,’” said Alvarado.

The “green” plan is more sustainable, yet because its strategies are varied, it makes it inherently more difficult to implement from a policy standpoint. These are the 4 big reasons why:

Green strategies require more coordination

Sewage overflow sees no boundaries: the integrated sewage system connects Pittsburgh to 83 surrounding municipalities. That means that if the City of Pittsburgh wants to use green in order to meet EPA standards, it will take regional coordination and consolidation between various municipalities if green solutions are to have any impact at all.

Green strategies include aspects that are difficult to quantify

As it stands, there are no proven cost savings to green solutions, but Alvarado says there are many added benefits in green that don’t exist in grey, including job creation, improved street scapes, and alleviation of blight.

“If you live in one of the many communities in this region that has rampant blight, that has been disinvested in for years … and we can make a 3 billion dollar investment that will bring long term local good construction and maintenance jobs to your neighbors that will help to beautify your community…that’s going to be a smarter investment to make than just paying your sewer bill and getting the same service you’ve always gotten.”

Alvarado says jobs that are a part of a grey plan to build tunnels are more specialized and are more likely to be contracted from outside of the area. Jobs related to green infrastructure would create good construction jobs throughout those 83 municipalities that would take place over a longer stretch of time.

“The way we envision large-scale solutions is that ALCOSAN would contract with municipalities; ALCOSAN would fund the project and enter into contracts to determine the work that needs to be done,” said Alvarado.

Green planning requires scalability

A rain barrel here and a rain garden there will not create a quantifiable solution. “If we get to the point where every time Pittsburgh is paving its streets, they’re paving it with permeable materials the costs are going to go down because we have a system in place to make that happen,” said Alvarado.

These solutions implemented on a large scale are what will get results.

Alvarado pointed to the example of The Saw Mill Run Integrated Watershed Management Project, which Peduto has publicly supported. The project encompasses 12 municipalities, demonstrating both the scalability and the type of multi-municipal coordination required for innovative green design to work. A $9 million dollar plan to support the project is in the works.

Green strategies require strong leadership

When asked what was the most important thing holding back implementation of green strategies, advocates of green solutions responded with “confidence” and “strong leadership.”

The most important thing Mayor Peduto has done in just the first short months of his term was to make smart ALCOSAN board appointments, said Alvarado.

“He’s put in demonstrated leaders in green infrastructure and also people who understand the way that green infrastructure can tie with community development, to achieve maximum benefits and he’s made those kinds of appointments to the board.”

These appointments include Brenda Smith, Executive Director of the Nine Mile Watershed Association an organization that gets communities involved in storm water management and Greg Jones, Executive Director of Economic Development South, an organization that coordinates community development across municipalities.

What Do the Next Steps Look Like?

Alvarado says a green plan would start with a Regional Green Infrastructure Opportunity Assessment that would identify hotspots for implementing green solutions.

“We are working closely with the Peduto Administration to pursue the kind of study that could ask the questions of where are the places where this region would be best suited to maximizing green solutions?”

A paradigm shift is necessary if Pittsburgh and the surrounding municipalities want to solve the problem of sewage overflow, making strong leadership and innovative leaders all the more important.

“Historically ALCOSAN has viewed itself only as a place that takes whatever comes to it and treats it,” said Alvarado, but implementing green solutions means that they’ll have to stop thinking of themselves as an entity that meets water at the end of its journey, and more as an entity that works to manage water at the moment of rainfall, which is what green solutions are all about.

Turning to green infrastructure would place Pittsburgh amongst innovative, forward-thinking cities. “This is a place where Pittsburgh can be a leader and I think that’s the vision that Peduto gets,” said Alvarado.