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PWSA asks residents: What kind of a stormwater system are you willing to pay for?

Ana Flores, an engineer at PWSA, led the development of a stormwater project in Carrick at Volunteers Field that also utilized the resources of the city parks department.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Ana Flores, an engineer at the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority, led the development of a stormwater project in Carrick at Volunteers Field that also used the resources of the city parks department.

When you flush your toilet, you expect the sewage to flow out of your house. When you turn on a faucet, you expect clean drinking water to come out of it. There may be problems sometimes with delivering these services, but the expectations are clear: if the sewage doesn’t flush or your water doesn’t come out, you can call the city to fix the problem.

But when it rains, some homes flood. In other neighborhoods, the roads are inundated. And in still other areas, there are almost no problems. Right now, there isn’t an agreed-upon standard in Pittsburgh for what residents should expect, according to the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority.

PWSA is asking the public for help in deciding what kind of a stormwater system to build for its residents. For the first time, PWSA in 2022 started collecting a stormwater fee, which is based on the amount of “impermeable” land on your property — the amount of land correlates to how much rainwater the city will have to manage.

PWSA has plans for a “multiyear phase-in of stormwater rate increases” starting in 2023 that will allow the agency to more fully address 30 to 60 areas in the city that continue to face flooding problems even when rainfall is only moderately heavy.

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The stormwater fee currently provides around $23 million per year for upkeep and projects. This level of funding doesn’t even fully address PWSA’s existing commitments, according to Tony Igwe, who was hired by PWSA in 2021 to lead the new stormwater program.

Igwe said he expects the agency to collect around $35 million per year as fees rise. But even after that, Igwe said, there will still be problems, and residents will need to decide how many of those remaining flooding problems they are willing to pay to address.

Igwe said the city hasn't agreed upon an overall vision like cities such as Cleveland and Washington, D.C. In these cities, there is a defined “level of service” that gives developers and homeowners clear expectations about what should happen when it rains.

Earlier this month PWSAreleased a draft of a strategic plan that will help the agency decide which stormwater projects to prioritize based on public input. Some cities have more ambitious plans than others, Igwe said: The more ambitious plans are more expensive.

The need for a plan became apparent in recent years: After record amounts of rainfall in 2018 and 2019, the city’s 311 line was flooded with complaints about sinkholes, clogged catch basins, leaks, landslides and stormwater runoff.

PWSA’s new plan sets out a clear process for involving the community in how to spend its stormwater funds. And following the lead of a handful of environmental nonprofits, PWSA has included data on neighborhoods and communities that would benefit most from additional stormwater infrastructure.

At the top of the list is the Negley Run watershed, which includes low-income neighborhoods such as Larimer and Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar. Toward the bottom of the list is the Nine-Mile Run watershed that includes Squirrel Hill.

With limited funding, Igwe said, PWSA has to decide where to invest first.

“I'm sure you know the story of Don Quixote, where he says the guy jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions at once,” Igwe said. “We can't do that. We can't ride off in all directions at once as much as we'd love to. We're constrained by the money.”

Saw Mill Run

PWSA completed construction of a nearly $2 million stormwater project at Volunteers Field in Carrick this year, ending a nearly four-year process. In November, PWSA gave a tour of the site, which exemplifies both how stormwater problems were addressed in the recent past and what could change going forward.

The site was initially picked because it offered a “quick win” for PWSA. Sand from four baseball fields at the park kept pouring into stormwater drains during rains, leading to pollution in the nearby Saw Mill Run stream. It was considered a good project in part because the city of Pittsburgh would help pay for improvements at the baseball fields with parks funding, while PWSA addressed the stormwater problems. The joint project would also capture and slow some rainwater before it caused roads to flood downstream.

“We got the benefits of being able to manage stormwater and get some water-quality improvements within Saw Mill Run,” said Rebecca Zito, a spokesperson for PWSA. “And then, in turn, it will be a better asset to two community groups that are using the field.”

PWSA’s new strategic plan follows many of the same kinds of reasoning used to build the Carrick project — and builds upon them.

Courtesy image

Two years ago, ALCOSAN’s $2 billion Clean Water Planset forth an ambitious plan to remove a majority of the sewage pouring into the city’s waterways. The new strategic plan takes into account where ALCOSAN already is investing to avoid duplication. While ALCOSAN’s plan removes nearly all of the sewage pollution in some watersheds, Saw Mill Run will still need help.

The plan also takes into account the kinds of people who live in Carrick near the project. The plan split the city into 19 different watersheds — drainage areas through which stormwater flows. Then PWSA looked at how many low-income residents and residents of color live in those 19 watersheds — especially taking into account other environmental challenges there, such as pollution. These areas in need of “environmental justice” will get increased priority, under PWSA’s proposed plan.
PWSA also plans to prioritize projects where it can work with other governmental agencies, foundations and nonprofit organizations to maximize its funding.

Ana Flores, who oversaw the Volunteers Field project for PWSA, said the work took longer and cost more than anticipated because the soil was “like Jell-o” in certain spots, and filled with old, buried bricks in other spots.

Courtesy image

“One of our biggest lessons learned is really to go that extra mile — to spend the money to do geotechnical investigations and surveys — to better understand what you're dealing with underground,” she said.

Anthony Coghill, the city councilor whose district includes Carrick, said he is happy that the stormwater project is finally coming to a conclusion after several years in which the baseball fields remained closed.

“This is just a Band-Aid on a much larger problem,” Coghill said. “I've been on Route 51, which is as you know, a major corridor, and thousands and thousands of cars travel up and down it daily. And I've been in knee-high water [there].”

Igwe said that projects like the one at Volunteers Field might be designed and constructed a little differently in the future once there is a broader vision for the city’s stormwater infrastructure.

“It’s very likely this [project] may need to be a little bigger in terms of how much volume [of water] they hold,” he said. “It may need to be a little more substantive, too, to help us long-term.”

Resident feedback

PWSA will be collecting feedback from residents on its new stormwater plan until Feb. 17, including holding public meetings in 2023.

“People are quite free to say, ‘You guys are crazy. Here is a better way to prioritize it,'” Igwe said. “We'll definitely take that in and see if somebody comes with a better idea of how to slice the bread.”

The trick is deciding where to prioritize without over-promising, Igwe said. Even if it were theoretically possible to avoid all flooding, Igwe said, building such a stormwater system would cost billions of dollars.

“And if you put that into rates, I don't think most people want to pay for it,” he said. “So the dance is trying to find a level high enough and cheap enough that we can kind of say, ‘OK, that's the sweet spot.’”

With public feedback, PWSA can plan for a better stormwater system and decide how quickly to build it — depending on how much money residents want to spend.

“Those are the questions we still need to ask and have people weigh in on as we move forward,” Igwe said.

The planning process could take several years, and construction of stormwater improvements will continue for decades, Igwe said.

Coghill is sanguine about the city’s stormwater challenges even after watching how long it took to complete the project in Carrick.

“We're still at the mercy of Mother Nature,” he said. “But it's good to see one project get completed and move on to the next one. And hopefully, years from now, we'll have the flooding controlled.

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.