FAQ

1. What is the Clean Rivers Campaign?
2. What is a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO)?
3. What is green infrastructure?
4. What is the difference between stormwater and wastewater?
5. What is the problem with Pittsburgh’s sewer system?
6. What is ALCOSAN’s proposed solution and how much is it going to cost?
7. What are the alternatives? Can we really change ALCOSAN’s plan?
8. Why should we care that there is sewage going into the rivers since it’s treated before we drink it?
9. How will green infrastructure benefit my community?
10. My basement floods frequently. Will green infrastructure help with that?

 

What is the Clean Rivers Campaign?

The Clean Rivers Campaign is an education & advocacy program designed to raise awareness of the stormwater runoff and sewage overflow issues in Allegheny County.

Leading this campaign is a coalition of organizations that have successfully promoted public policies that support and improve our communities. Find out more about them on our Partners page.

More than 50 local organizations and more than 1,000 individuals have endorsed our campaign – Thank you! Please consider Endorsing the Campaign if you haven’t already!

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What is a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO)?

A combined sewer overflow (CSO) occurs when a combined sewer system (that is, a system that carries both stormwater and wastewater in the same pipe) becomes overwhelmed, and overflows into the nearest waterway. This can occur during periods of rain or snowmelt, when the volume of water inside the sewer pipe exceeds the capacity of the system to transport it to the treatment plant. These overflows can contain untreated human waste, bacteria, trash, and debris.

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What is green infrastructure?

The term “green infrastructure” refers to both natural and constructed systems that are designed to mimic nature through the implementation of techniques that capture, infiltrate, and filter runoff before it enters the sewer system.

Examples include green roofs, rain gardens, trees, permeable pavement, and rain barrels.

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What is the difference between stormwater and wastewater?

Stormwater is created during precipitation events (e.g., rainfall, snow melt) when water flows over the ground on its way to the nearest sewer or waterbody. Wastewater is used water (sewage) that is discharged from homes, businesses, and manufacturing plants.

Stormwater and wastewater can contain harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses, pharmaceuticals, synthetic hormones, heavy metals, petroleum products, trash, and sediment.

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What is the problem with Pittsburgh’s sewer system?

Pittsburgh’s sewer system is very complex. The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) is responsible for the treatment of 83 different municipalities’ sewage, and many areas that send sewage to ALCOSAN have a combined sewer system (meaning both stormwater and wastewater are conveyed in the same pipe). These combined sewer systems were designed to overflow into rivers and streams during periods of heavy rain, when the system would become full beyond capacity.

Unfortunately, today, due to the prolific impervious surfaces that exist in Pittsburgh as well as our aging sewer infrastructure, as little as 1/10 of an inch of rain can overload the system with excess stormwater and cause CSOs to occur at hundreds of locations around Pittsburgh.

ALCOSAN is under a federal consent decree to solve this problem, and municipalities where CSOs occur are also under consent orders to fix their CSO problems as well.

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What is ALCOSAN’s proposed solution and how much is it going to cost?

ALCOSAN released its plan for dealing with our sewer issues on July 31, 2012. They are proposing to solve our sewer problems using solely gray infrastructure. This will be the largest-ever public works investment in Allegheny County’s history.

Gray infrastructure is the term given to traditional sewer solutions such as large pipes, underground storage tunnels, and treatment facilities. Unfortunately, this dependence on gray solutions means that the plan will generate the greatest expense to ratepayers while providing no additional benefits to the community. It is anticipated that the cost of ALCOSAN’s plan will be right at the top of what the US EPA has deemed to be affordable for our region – $2 billion. This is going to result in substantial rate increases that are going to be extremely difficult for some communities to bear.

The EPA responded to ALCOSAN’s proposed wet weather management plan on January 24, 2014 calling it “deficient”. The EPA stated the plan did not meet water quality goals outlined in the 2008 federal consent decree. This was not a formal disapproval of the plan and the EPA offered to meet with ALCOSAN about the deficiencies.

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What are the alternatives? Can we really change ALCOSAN’s plan?

The Clean Rivers Campaign believes that managing our stormwater and sewer issues with green infrastructure solutions in conjunction with gray infrastructure improvements will provide the greatest benefit to our communities. Green solutions provide many advantages that gray does not – for example, improved air quality, reduced energy usage, and more beautiful neighborhoods.

The US EPA is a major proponent of green infrastructure use, and Clean Rivers Campaign believes that if enough ratepayers push their elected officials to choose green solutions that will create family sustaining jobs and revitalize our business districts while also managing stormwater, Allegheny County residents will see the benefits of going green realized.

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Why should we care that there is sewage going into the rivers since it’s treated before we drink it?

90% of Allegheny County residents rely on our rivers for drinking water, so the flow of sewage and other pollutants into our rivers is a serious public health concern. Even though the water is treated before it is distributed for drinking, some emerging contaminants (like pharmaceuticals and hormones found in wastewater) are usually not completely removed. This is alarming because there are no federal or state standards or monitoring requirements for the vast majority of the drugs found in drinking water, and there is little knowledge about the effect of these substances cumulatively, over long periods of time, in humans, animals, or ecosystems.

Additionally, the health concerns associated with CSOs are such that it is not safe to touch, much less swim in, our area’s rivers for roughly half of the swimming season. This is because sewage overflows are a main source of E. coli bacteria in local waterways, and ingesting water with high levels of E. coli can cause illness and exposes individuals to a host of other viruses and pathogens.

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How will green infrastructure benefit my community?

The implementation of green infrastructure will benefit our community in many ways other than just improved stormwater management. For example:

  • Creation of sustainable jobs across many sectors,
  • revitalization of business districts,
  • improved air quality,
  • cooler summer temperatures,
  • and increased property values, among many others.

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My basement floods frequently. Will green infrastructure help with that?

The implementation of green infrastructure would certainly help the problem but may not eliminate it entirely. Basement flooding varies on a case by case basis due to several different factors, including the slope of the land you are living on. As our sewer system is currently overburdened, the resolution to basement flooding on a large scale requires an overhaul of our current system in conjunction with the implementation of green infrastructure.

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