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Environment & Energy

Council Members Urged to Pursue Green Solutions to Storm Water Overflow Problem

A broad coalition of environmental and community groups Monday urged Pittsburgh City Council to pursue green infrastructure solutions to the city’s storm water overflow problem.

Invited guests at the Council Post Agenda meeting included representatives of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Blue Green Alliance, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, and the Clean Rivers Campaign, among others.

Green infrastructure includes things like rain gardens, living roofs, urban farms and permeable concrete, all of which can help divert storm water from the city’s sewer system. This is in contrast to the more traditional gray infrastructure solutions, such as additional pipes and holding tanks.

Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, director of the Clean Rivers Campaign, hosted a rally outside of council chambers prior to the meeting.

“Investing first in these large scale green infrastructure solutions is a cost-effective approach to our court mandated sewer fix,” Kennedy said. “(It) solves water quality problems and provides multiple economic, social and environmental benefits.”

Proponents of green infrastructure said it can create jobs, beautify the city and help combat urban blight.

Heather Sage, director of Community Projects for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, said her group has already implemented many green infrastructure strategies for storm water management at parks throughout the city.

Sage said there are benefits to green infrastructure that are not present with traditional gray infrastructure.

“Those kinds of solutions lack collateral benefits,” Sage said. “The kinds of collateral benefits we’ve been hearing about today, such as ecological restoration and function, increased quality of life, development of jobs, enhancing property values, beauty, education, and long-term viability.”

Anne Thomas is an engineer with Tetra Tech, a firm that regularly consults for the Environmental Protection Agency. She said she's confident green infrastructure solutions can help Pittsburgh mitigate its storm water overflow problems caused by combined sewer overflow, or CSO.

“Our work in CSO communities including Lansing, Mich., Toledo, Ohio, and Omaha, Neb. have shown that green infrastructure can remove a substantial amount of storm water from the combined sewer system,” Thomas said. “The Pittsburgh region has significant opportunities to implement green infrastructure, despite some perceived physical and topographical challenges.”

In addition to physical and topographical challenges, the city and county face some considerable logistical challenges.

One major issue is that ALCOSAN, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, has already submitted its storm water management plan to the Environmental Protection Agency. They can submit a request to the EPA saying they’d like to modify the plan, but there’s no guarantee any modifications would be approved.

The current plan does not include any green infrastructure, only gray. That’s partially because ALCOSAN does not have the authority to implement much in the way of green infrastructure. They don’t own parks or vacant lots in which to plant trees, and they don’t own parking lots or streets that can be repaved with water permeable concrete.

“We are providing a leadership role in this process,” said Arletta Scott Thomas, executive director of ALCOSAN. “The municipalities would still be required to implement.”

Another issue is that there isn’t much data about how much storm water different green infrastructure strategies can divert, and how much each of those strategies will cost.

In an effort to collect some of that data, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is planning to implement some green infrastructure in the Saw Mill Run area, to the tune of $10 million.

One thing experts are confident about is that green infrastructure investments can create and sustain as many jobs as investments in traditional gray infrastructure.

Rob McCulloch is the director of Infrastructure Programs for the Blue Green Alliance, a national consortium of labor and environmental groups, co-founded by United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club.

“Green infrastructure investment appears to have a similar cost-benefit ratio to traditional water approaches in terms of employment impact,” McCulloch said. “On the order of 20,000 jobs, both direct and indirect, created for every one billion dollars of investment.”

George Hawkins is general manager of DC Water, the water and sewer authority for Washington, D.C. He was on hand to talk about similar green infrastructure investments that his city is making and said any decisions about storm water management need to be made with the long view in mind. His passion for environmental issues and confidence in the city of Pittsburgh drew applause from the audience.

“The infrastructure investments we make today are the decisions we’re going to make for people not yet born,” Hawkins said. “The significance of that, and the opportunity we have, and the questions we can answer, is one of the great moments in time. Pittsburgh is at the plate, and I just hope you hit it out of the ballpark, which is so possible.”

Mayor-elect Bill Peduto said he was glad to see nearly a hundred Pittsburgh residents at the council meeting, and had a clear message for the public.

“I ask you to do one thing: stay vigilant,” Peduto said. “Do not back down, do not walk away, do not think that everything is on a good path and that your work here is done. It’s going to require a lot of people staying very active on this issue, and I promise to work with you every step of the way.”