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EPA Budget Cuts Jeopardize Oversight and Technical Assistance to End Sewer Overflows in Pittsburgh

Our report series, Rough Waters Ahead, written with Environment America Research & Policy Center, tells the story of the EPA’s work to protect and restore our nation’s great waterways – including the Delaware River basin, the Susquehanna River basin and the Three Rivers basin  – and how the Trump administration’s proposed budget would affect them. Our previous post described how the EPA funded a local watershed association’s efforts to clean up acid mine drainage in the Susquehanna River basin and restore a native brook trout fishery. In this post, we bring you a story of how the EPA technical assistance has supported the development of green infrastructure in the Pittsburgh area.

Pittsburgh has a wet weather problem. As a result of sprawling development, an increasing portion of the Pittsburgh area is impervious, meaning that instead of filtering into the ground, rainfall runs off roads and into waterways. During heavy rain events, the city suffers from sewer overflows and flash floods, when excess stormwater overloads the sewer system and raw sewage flows into its rivers and streams. Sewage overflows can expose people to health risks, such as stomach cramps, diarrhea, hepatitis, gastroenteritis and norovirus. Since the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) reached a settlement with the EPA in 2007 for Clean Water Act violations from combined sewer overflows, ALCOSAN, the City of Pittsburgh and their partners have been working to reduce excess flow, notably by using installing “green stormwater infrastructure” to capture rain where it falls and prevent overflows.

Green stormwater infrastructure features are installations that mimic the natural environment and absorb rainfall. For example, traditional roofs may be replaced with green roofs, traditional paved roads with permeable ones, or portions of mowed lawns with rain gardens. Studies have shown that green stormwater systems can trap between 45 and 99 percent of solid pollutants in stormwater, and can absorb between 50 percent and 90 percent of rainfall. Construction costs for green stormwater infrastructure are also 5 to 30 percent lower than the expense of building new “gray” infrastructure consisting of traditional man-made storm drains and sewer systems.

From 2012 to 2015, the EPA provided technical assistance to the City of Pittsburgh and its partner, 3 Rivers Wet Weather, a nonprofit organization that supports Allegheny County municipalities as they work to address the wet weather overflow challenge, to develop green infrastructure designs for three sites. The collaboration produced a report for each of the sites proposing conceptual designs and feasibility conditions for green infrastructure.

The design techniques developed through that exercise have been applied to a variety of other sites in the Pittsburgh area. For instance, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority collaborated with the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association to implement green stormwater infrastructure projects over a 1.15 square mile area in the watershed, which contributed 25 million gallons of sewer overflows to the Allegheny River each year. In 2016, the partners built bioswales, underground storage systems, stormwater tree pits, rain gardens at the intersections of Oakwood and Batavia streets and Frankstown Avenue and Wheeler Street, as well as the Crescent Early Childhood Center in the East Side of Pittsburgh. These installations will capture at least 1.7 million gallons of stormwater runoff each year. The Nine Mile Run Watershed Association is monitoring the projects to verify their effectiveness, and continues to deploy other green stormwater infrastructure features, including stormwater tree planters, free rain barrels and residential and commercial rain gardens.

Through the three site-specific reports, the four white papers and informal technical assistance, the EPA has supplied local government, utilities and organizations with invaluable expert knowledge to implement green stormwater infrastructure and help address Pittsburgh’s wet weather problems.

The Allegheny County Sanitation Authority has proposed to spend $2 billion over the next decade to address combined sewer overflows. The EPA has assisted the City of Pittsburgh and its partners in developing green stormwater infrastructure solutions. Continued EPA oversight is critical as ALCOSAN works to address its combined sewer overflow problems in accordance with the 2007 settlement agreement.

This is just one story of how the EPA has worked to protect and restore the Three Rivers basin. But the Trump administration has proposed to slash the EPA enforcement budget, while the September 2017 House spending bill would cut more than a quarter of the budget for the agency’s core staff and functions, hobbling its work to protect our waterways. Our report, Rough Waters Ahead: The Impact of the Trump Administration’s EPA Budget Cuts on the Three Rivers Basin, illustrates the EPA’s work with five additional case studies, and shows that now is not the time to hobble the EPA’s essential work to protect clean waterways. Acid mine drainage, mining and fracking pollution and urban runoff show that we still have work to do in cleaning up the basin. But budget cuts will put the EPA’s protection, enforcement, restoration, research and education work in danger – threatening the future health of the state’s waterways.

The Three Rivers basin is critical to the health and welfare of the families, communities and wildlife that call it home. For 40 years, EPA has been working to protect clean water in the basin from threats like mine drainage, agricultural and urban runoff, and industrial activity. Only a well-funded EPA can continue the legacy of progress in cleaning up the Three Rivers basin and ensure that they are healthy and safe for us and future generations to enjoy.

Photo: EPA technical assistance helped produce design guidelines for green stormwater infrastructure projects in the Pittsburgh area, contributing to the implementation of projects like the rain garden at the Crescent Early Childhood Center in the East Side neighborhood. Credit: Theresa Muehlbauer/Nine Mile Run Watershed Association.