PWSA Launches Program to Help Homeowners Manage Storm Water

Jan 30, 2015

The Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority is launching a loan and grant program to help homeowners in "sanitary sewer areas" create separate connections to storm and waste water sewers.
Credit midquel / Flickr

Many Pittsburgh homeowners have tried to sell their houses, only to find out that construction decisions made long before they ever even purchased those homes threw a wrench into the process.

Now, the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority wants to lend a helping hand to homeowners stymied by such problems.

Residential properties in “sanitary sewer areas” must have separate pipelines for storm water and waste water, as specified in the 2004 Consent Order and Agreement between PWSA, the city of Pittsburgh, the Allegheny County Health Department and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

But Brendan Schubert, external affairs manager for PWSA, said home builders decades ago did not always create those separate connections for storm and waste water.

“In some instances, mostly in the southern neighborhoods within the city of Pittsburgh, these laterals with storm water connect into a permitted sanitary sewer only,” explained.

Pittsburgh City Council passed an ordinance in 2006 requiring homeowners to pass a “dye test” before selling their houses, showing that storm water runoff from their properties was not ending up in sanitary sewers.

Schubert said around 4,000 properties in the city of Pittsburgh have failed the dye test.

“A lot of homes have not sold, especially in low to medium income-level areas,” he said.

Schubert said fixes for the problem can cost homeowners anywhere from $250 all the way up to $30,000. He said an inexpensive solution could be raising the level of the driveway air vent that runs to the sanitary sewer line so storm water cannot drain into it. Schubert said an estimated 25 percent of the affected homeowners could get away with such an inexpensive fix.

“Some of the more medium (cost) fixes might be connecting to an adjacent storm sewer that is a short linear distance from your house,” he said. “Some of the more costly fixes might be connecting to a storm sewer that is across the street or 100 feet (away).”

PWSA is now working to launch a program that will offset the cost of such fixes for qualifying homeowners.

The Residential Homeowner Assistance Program, or RHAP, will offer sliding scale grants and loans to people who earn up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, roughly $29,000/year for an individual or $60,000/year for a family of four. Schubert said roughly half of the affected homeowners qualify for assistance.

PWSA is also encouraging homeowners to pursue green solutions to the combined sewer line problem.

“A green solution might be a bioswale in their backyard, it might be a gravel pit, it might be a community green solution where a group of neighbors gets together and creates a berm in the backyard for the water to drain into,” Schubert said.

PWSA put $200,000 in seed money in the RHAP fund, with the expectation that donations from foundations and state and federal grants will help grow the fund. Schubert said they hope to expand the fund in the future to include other types of sewer and water-related assistance programs.

He said the program will be administered by the Dollar Energy Fund and that homeowners should be able to being the assistance application process within the next 30 days.

Find out if your neighborhood is a "sanitary sewer area" at the PWSA website.