Archive for May, 2012

Sustainable Stormwater Management in Pittsburgh

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

posted by Pieter Mueller

The City of Pittsburgh is nicknamed the City of Bridges for good reason. To me, the thought of these bridges instantly brings to mind the unique and beautiful landscape in Pittsburgh: the hills, the ravines, and most especially, the three rivers. This unique landscape has been sculpted by water and our city’s water has long been one of its most important assets. However, the way in which we manage this asset has long-term implications for the entire region’s economic and environmental health.

22 BILLION gallons. That’s the average yearly amount of untreated sewage and stormwater that overflows from the sewer system into our waterways, typically occurring during wet weather. This degrades the waters and makes them unsafe, even for recreational use. Not only do these overflows cause damage to the waterways, they also cause damage to property. When these events occur, the lines can back up, causing costly basement flooding and damage to residences. Already, we know this problem must be addressed due to the 2007 Consent Decree between the EPA and ALCOSAN. However, like many problems, there are multiple options for how the problem can be addressed and each option has future implications.

Right now, the current plan to deal with this issue involves building a massive storage system to hold excess sewage during wet weather until it can be treated. This traditional engineering solution will cost at least $10 billion dollars and potentially upwards of $50 billion. While effective, there is another solution which has been shown by other cities to save taxpayers billions of dollars and provide environmental and health benefits. This solution is to incorporate “green” stormwater management techniques. Examples of green infrastructure include: permeable pavement, green roofs, and rain gardens.

The use of green methods is gaining traction in stormwater management. Since 2007, the EPA has issued four memos stating support for the use of green infrastructure. Just across the state in Philadelphia, the incorporation of these methods is estimated to provide benefits of $2.2 billion. These benefits are economic, environmental, and social. The use of green infrastructure would not only reduce the costs to the city of dealing with overflowing sewage it would also provide additional benefits such as cleaner air, more beautiful landscapes, and cleaner ground water.

Already many members of the community have independently started using green infrastructure. From green roofs at Carnegie Mellon University to the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory – one of the greenest buildings in the world, there are many resources in the community for learning how to take action. While we should push for the inclusion of green infrastructure in the plan to deal with sewage overflow, we don’t have to wait for others to start incorporating green methods. One step that can be taken in Pittsburgh is to install rain gardens where possible. To see if there are rain gardens near you and to get ideas on what you could build, visit: http://raingardenalliance.org/.

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