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Local Water Authorities Push Assistance Programs For Low-Income Customers

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA

On today’s program: With utility moratoriums ending, Oliver Morrison of PublicSource details how local water authorities are trying to help low-income customers up for assistance programs; roboticist William “Red” Whittaker and archivist Katherine Barbera explain how Carnegie Mellon University’s “Robotics Project” is archiving the history of robot development; and a look at how arts venues are implementing safety protocols as they reopen after a year without performances.

Assistance programs available for Pittsburgh's low-income water customers, but not many are signed up
(0:00 - 7:04)

In one-third of Pittsburgh neighborhoods, at least 1 in 5 residents spend 10% or more of their income on water and sewage bills. That’s more than twice the percentage the Environmental Protection Agency considers unaffordable.

"We know, especially for people on fixed incomes, when those water bills have been going up faster than inflation, that for more and more people these water bills are becoming unaffordable," says Oliver Morrison, a reporter for PublicSource who has been covering water affordability in Pittsburgh. Water rates in Pittsburgh have increased at more than four times the rate of inflation, compared to three times across the rest of the country.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) has programs to help low-income customers pay their bills. According to Morrison, customers who earn 150% or less of the federal poverty level are eligible to get their first 1,000 gallons of water and the fixed portion of their bills for free.

But PWSA has a hard time getting customers to sign up.

"Around 25,000 total customers are eligible in some way, shape or form for this, and right now they've only signed up just under 5,000, so they know they have a lot of work to do," he says.

Another hurdle is that multiple water authorities serve those eligible, and each authority has a different assistance program.

“In theory, you should be able to sign up for all of them by calling the Dollar Energy Fund, which administers all the programs, but we know that's not happening," Morrison says.

PWSA knows it could be reaching more people to offer assistance, and they are taking steps to address the issue.

"That's why they've hired a team of three people to take on an advertising campaign: they've been promoting it on their website, they've been including flyers, food bank programs and things like that."

CMU launches robotics archival project
(7:08 - 17:26)

Carnegie Mellon University is archiving the history of robotics in a new effort titled The Robotics Project.

Its first exhibit, Building the Robot Archive, is now online.

“It's hard to know where to begin when you're dealing with materials that have never been preserved at scale before,” says Katherine Barbera, lead archivist on the project. She says one challenge is determining what, exactly, constitutes a robot, and how to go about preserving something so complex.

William “Red” Whittaker, a roboticist and CMU professor has his own answer to what makes up a robot: “Machines at work in the world, but I’m very broad in my view, honoring every element of such machines.”

He says it’s difficult to grasp, sometimes, when history happening while developing a new robot. This can make it difficult for archivists like Barbera, as only certain pieces of the process might be preserved by the end of a project.

“In the beginning, robotics was nothing but science fiction and fantasy,” he adds. “It wasn't foreseen that it would turn into a discipline, or an enterprise, or transform things like farming and driving and exploration. So in that same way, there was never a sense that the time would come when history is the most relevant thing to capture.”

Arts venues are reopening after 16 months of closures
(17:32 - 22:30)

As vaccinations have taken hold in Pittsburgh and around the country, in-person performances have returned to previously shuttered venues. More theaters have announced they will open this fall. 90.5 WESA’s Bill O’Driscoll reports on how a few are preparing.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Rebecca Reese is a production assistant for The Confluence.
Eoin is a production assistant for The Confluence and a senior at NC State University studying political science. He got his start in broadcasting at WKNC, NC State's college radio station. When he's not working, he enjoys hiking, surfing, and listening to music.
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