With All The Kerfuffle Over Pittsburgh’s Water, What About Its Sewers?

Jul 20, 2018

By Mayor Bill Peduto’s estimate, some 20 companies have expressed interest in the water side of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. But that tumble of overtures has been absent an integral part of PWSA: sewers.

“Nobody wants the sewers,” said Paul Leger, chairman of PWSA’s board of directors. “That's the unglamorous part.”

Some have speculated that no one’s come calling for the authority’s 1,200 miles of sewer lines and four sewer pump stations because they’re more expensive to operate, but that’s not the case, said Leger.

“It is more expensive to operate the water system than it is the sewer system because the sewer system is passive,” he said. “So it remains almost, you know, free until you have to make changes and then it's big costs because these are gigantic tunnels.”

PWSA creates separate budgets for the water and sewer systems: the cost of conveying each helps determine the rates for each, and the anticipated revenue is then committed to that system’s infrastructure updates. But because PWSA is a combined system, it has the flexibility to borrow money on the strength of both, said Rocky Craley, PWSA’s interim finance director.

“All of the revenue that comes in the door kind of comes into one pot ... it’s almost like having a married couple having a combined bank account,” he said. “If there’s an unforeseen horrible circumstance or major capital thing that needs to be done in one area versus the other, we can pull from the one account to help mitigate costs.”

There are significant efficiencies — billing, engineering and operations — in managing all three systems, water, sewer and stormwater, said Craley.

“If we were to slice water away, there would be a lot of economies of scale that would no longer exist and cause sewer collection and conveyance to be more costly than it is right now.”

Beyond an increase in costs, splitting the system could have a negative impact on public health, said Friendship resident Abigail Gardner at a recent public hearing about PWSA. She added that divvying up water management would run contrary to a growing movement of integrated water resources management, or a “one water” approach.

“Every drop of water has value, and we need to manage it accordingly,” she said. “PWSA is responsible for more than just drinking water, it’s responsible for stormwater and wastewater infrastructure, too. Those systems are vital to our public health and safety, just like drinking water.”

As part of its sewer regionalization efforts, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, ALCOSAN, is working to take over some of the larger sewage collection and conveyance lines that serve more than one municipality. Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O’Connor, also an ALCOSAN board member, said transferring some of the authority's bigger sewage pipes could be a good way for PWSA to save money. 

Negotiations between PWSA and ALCOSAN are underway, and expected to wrap by the end of the first quarter, said ALCOSAN spokesperson Joey Vallarian.