The case of stormwater charges in the Pittsburgh area – PublicSource


PWSA: After the crisis

After record rainfall and flash floods in recent years, the need for action across the Pittsburgh area is clear.

In 2018, I started the Pittsburgh Urban Flood Journal where I documented, mapped and wrote about flood issues as they occur. The reason I did this is to raise awareness of flood prone areas. I hope that the information I collect will one day help solve our flooding problems for the health and safety of our neighborhoods. As a professional civil engineer, it is my duty.

Local leaders and engineers need to develop flood mitigation strategies to better manage stormwater before it causes damage. This can be done by using more piping capacity in some places or by slowing down the water using landscaped rain gardens and floodplain buffer landscapes in others – or, in many cases, a combination of the above. of them. Unfortunately, most of the municipalities in our region are struggling to find ways to pay for the necessary fixes, even though they have devised a solution. Like many engineers in my profession, I sometimes feel like I have one hand tied behind my back. Stormwater charges are an essential tool, but most communities in the Pittsburgh area do not.

All forms of water should be of value. The planet’s water cycle and our water supply are constantly in motion, reforming, shifting and recirculating. Without thinking too much about it, we drink, rinse, bathe (and hope to swim this summer!) In gallons of water every day. The average adult is 55 to 60% water and will drink approximately 30,000 gallons of watery beverages over an 80 year lifespan. When you think about it, the human body closely mimics a walking, talking water balloon with carefully designed calcium sticks inside. Water is our lifeblood, and all forms of water – potable, rainwater and waste – should be valued.

Take, for example, the tap water that we use for drinking, cooking and bathing. Once strictly the domain of the public sector, this water is so precious that a growing number of private multi-billion dollar companies are dedicated to filtering, managing and delivering the water to our taps. Whether public or private, everyone will be happy to sell us as much water as they want. The water suppliers know that we need water and that we will gladly pay for it.

The water we use to flush our toilets is no different. The regional sewage treatment plant operators from Pittsburgh to ALCOSAN have an annual capital and operating budget for 2021 of approximately $ 250 million to make sure our wastewater is treated and not poured freely into our rivers. Over the next decades, ALCOSAN will invest $ 2 billion to reduce sewer overflows during torrential rains. For the prospect, Heinz Field cost $ 281 million to build.

So what is left in the water world? Rainy waters. Stormwater has no monetary value assigned in most municipalities in the Pittsburgh area. This water falls from the sky and hits our roofs, alleys, sidewalks, parking lots, yards and roads with impunity. Someone has to catch it, hijack it, slow it down, carry it and clean it up. If we don’t, we end up with flooded roads, devastating landslides and dirty rivers.

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] is taking action to address our decades of stormwater neglect. Recently, PWSA submitted a rate request to the Public Utilities Commission to set up a stormwater charge. The proposed stormwater charge will create a fairer and more equitable billing system for their subscribers.

the record precipitation and increasingly violent thunderstorms that seem appear out of nowhere endanger public safety, cause material damage, degrade the environment and have a general impact on our quality of life.

Along Washington Boulevard, flood barriers and warning lights, along with reinforced cement poles and industrial chains around manholes and sewer grates serve as a warning to our inaction. Many do not know it, but the poles and chains are there to serve in part as a measure of last resort to save lives: if someone were caught in a flood, they could reach out and hold on to the chains for keep yourself from being sucked into the swirling vortex of flood water pouring down 10-foot underground sewer lines. The safety of our residents along Washington Boulevard and other major flood-prone roads in our area is, at its core, a stormwater management issue that will require a lot of planning, effort, and funding to resolve.

Chains that serve as last-ditch rescue devices surround storm sewers along Washington Boulevard. (Photo by Lindsay Dill / PublicSource)

To study after to study has shown that flooding disproportionately affects low-income families and people of color. By instituting a stormwater charge based on the impervious area on a person’s property, municipalities can create a level playing field to do something about costly flooding problems. Without stormwater charges, municipalities are unable to fairly collect revenues from paved parking lots serving large commercial landlords, large private driveways and concrete patios. These types of impervious surfaces generate the most stormwater per foot per foot. How is that fair and just?

The fairest and most equitable way to meet Pittsburgh’s stormwater challenges is to measure the total amount of pavement and roof space on a given property where rainwater cannot drain. PWSA currently collects sewer revenue that can fund some stormwater projects to help keep sewage out of rivers. But this funding is based on measured drinking water consumption and does not directly target flooding. That leaves out those responsible for much of the stormwater problem.

When it comes to implementing flood mitigation projects, many regional institutions and leaders will praise the use of rainwater-absorbing green infrastructure design practices. However, it is impossible to sustainably finance meaningful green infrastructure programs without a dedicated revenue stream for development and maintenance. Stormwater charges are the financial foundation of the country’s most progressive green infrastructure programs, including The “green city, clean waters” of Philadelphia and “Save him! »From Lancaster programs.

The time has come for storm water charges throughout the greater Pittsburgh area, joining other cities across the country. According to a Western Kentucky University Survey 2020 there are at least 1,807 cities and towns with stormwater charges in the United States. Many, in fact, are found here in Allegheny County, in the communities of Coraopolis Borough, Dormont Borough, Findlay Township, Moon Township, Monroeville, Mt. Lebanon Township, North Fayette Township, Plum Township, Whitehall Township and O’Hara Township. That said, there are 130 individual municipalities in Allegheny County alone, so we have a long way to go. Every year I attend the Three Rivers Wet Weather Conference, and almost everyone I met there supports the stormwater charges; their implementation, however, is not always politically popular.

Finally, I listened to the counter-argument of some residents against storm water charges. Usually it sounds something like, “Stop the rain tax!” How can you tax the rain? You can’t stop the rain! In response, it is not a tax; it is a fee to provide essential stormwater management services to our community. In addition, I find it curious that no one ever complains about a “tax” on the consumption or treatment of wastewater; we can’t help but drink water or go to the bathroom after all.

This may be because water and wastewater are valued in the water cycle, but for some reason stormwater is not. Everything is linked: water falls from the sky; we process it and drink it; and we throw it in the toilet to treat it again. This cycle repeats itself endlessly. Every drop of water on this planet is connected. Every drop must be valued.

Tom Batroney is a professional civil engineer with engineering consulting firm AKRF and resides in Wilkinsburg. He has worked on numerous public and private sector water resources projects during his 15 year career in the Pittsburgh area. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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