In 2014, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority spent $13 million dollars on its infrastructure, the pumps and pipes that make up its water and sewer systems. This year, PWSA’s board approved a capital budget of $233 million.
For decades the approach to maintenance at PWSA was “fix-as-fail,” said Edward Barca, the agency’s director of finance. In practice, that meant things literally had to fall apart to merit attention. That old mindset kept rates low, but it helped create a lead crisis and a deep backlog of very expensive maintenance.
“What we're looking to spend and put back into the system … it’s over a billion dollars over the next five years,” Barca said.
It is almost impossible to overstate just how large and complex that system is. Besides a sprawling network of water mains, distribution lines and the sewer system, there are two giant reservoirs, pumping stations, and the treatment plant on the southern bank of the Allegheny River.
On a recent Thursday, Barry King tipped his head back to consider the pumps set below the soaring ceilings of the Aspinwall Pumping Station, just one piece of the plant’s campus.
“Only until you see it does it make sense,” said King, PWSA’s director of engineering and construction. “Otherwise, it just seems like, ‘Wow, why are you spending this much money on water?”
Each day, the plant draws 65 million gallons of water from the Allegheny River to begin the treatment process. (For reference, a luxurious home bath can hold about 40 gallons). The water is screened for debris, then clarified in a cathedral-like building where staff keep a small boat, in case they need to row out to address a problem in the middle of a basin. The water is piped under Freeport Road to large basins to undergo sedimentation before making a return trip to the plant for filtration. Then the water needs to hang out for about eight hours of chlorine contact time in something called the clearwell.
It’s a giant, single-cell tank buried under what looks like a regional runway at the treatment plant. As far as PWSA’s infrastructure goes the clearwell is an outlier; while nearly every other part of the water distribution system was built with a backup in order to ensure people can get water no matter what, the clearwell—through which every drop of water a Pittsburgher drinks passes—was built with no backup, and no means to maintain it.
“It's amazing for its size and function and how it's operated,” for more than 100 years, said King, but the time has come to replace it.
King and his team have spent more than five years working out the sequence of how they’ll upgrade the heart of the system, it entailed a more than five-year runup of other infrastructure projects in order to bypass, demolish, and replace the clearwell without ever interrupting water service. In total, the price tag is about $315 million.
PWSA will need more revenue to fund its aggressive infrastructure investments. For 2021, the agency proposed a rate increase to generate $43.8 million, said chief operating officer Jen Presutti.
“We're not an investor-owned utility, and so all of the money that we do get through our rates goes back into running the system and upgrading the system.”
Ultimately, PWSA got about half of what it asked for. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission oversees PWSA and so any increase in rates must win approval there.
Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy leads advocacy group Pittsburgh United, which weighed in on the 2020 rate request. She said PWSA was responsive to the realities of raising rates in a pandemic.
“We know that we need to invest in our system, we know we need to make upgrades to our system,” she said. “But we also know this is a moment where we need to protect people and make sure they have access to safe water.”
Besides larger projects intended to safeguard the system and make it sustainable, PWSA is on track to remove all lead lines from the system by 2026 and has expanded its customer assistance programs. Despite a smaller rate increase, PWSA decided to hold off on hiring instead of cutting capital investment.
This story was updated on Jan. 20, 2021 at 12:45 p.m. to clarify how water moves away from the treatment plant to begin the sedimentation process.