Greening the ALCOSAN Wet Weather Plan

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN), which collects and treats the region’s wastewater, has been working for several years to put together a plan to meet the terms of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) consent decree. The Authority was placed under the decree because of significant combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that are polluting our rivers with untreated wastewater and putting us well above the legal limits for water pollution under the federal Clean Water Act.

After several years of work and almost $30 million spent to craft a plan, ALCOSAN has released their Draft Wet Weather Plan and will be holding a series of public meetings to take comment and testimony.

The plan is split up into two primary alternatives – a plan which solves the sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) problem and the CSO problem entirely, at a cost of about $3.6 billion and a plan which partially solves the problems at a cost of about $2 billion. ALCOSAN plans to ask the EPA for leniency to allow them to pursue the $2 billion plan to slightly lessen the burden on ratepayers. However, both of these plans are entirely “gray” meaning that they employ the construction of new tunnels, pipes, and storage tanks to solve the problem. They don’t attempt to decrease the volume of water entering the system either through conservation strategies or green infrastructure improvements.

Part of the reason for this gray solution is that ALCOSAN can’t legally force the municipalities they serve (83 of the 130 in Allegheny County) to reduce the volume of water they send to the system. More on this challenge in an upcoming post…

Despite this challenge, reducing the volume of water entering the ALCOSAN system is the only long-term solution to this problem. Building giant conveyance tunnels and storage tanks under the river may alleviate CSOs in the short term but as the region grows we will be back to square one after 10, 15, or 20 years and spending billions more to build even bigger tunnels and tanks. At some point this cycle has to be broken and a sustainable solution has to be pursued. Rather than spend billions now and kick the can down the road why not work with the municipal clients and put a real solution in place?

Green infrastructure and conservation are not fads or pie in the sky ideas, they are currently being implemented around the country to control stormwater flows, improve neighborhood character, and save hundreds of millions of dollars versus gray engineering solutions. We’ve talked about Philadelphia’s green stormwater plan before, but that’s just one example of many. Cleveland, Denver, Portland, Kansas City, and countless other U.S. cities, large and small are incorporating significant green stormwater controls into their municipal plans. Philadelphia estimates that they will save over $150 million over several decades by implementing tree pits, bioswales, diversion ditches, and permeable surfaces rather than trying to build bigger pipes. The savings and the benefits are real and we need to take advantage of them.

Under even the cheaper ALCOSAN plan, the average ratepayer can expect their bill to go up by 100% or more. Today most people in the ALCOSAN service area pay between $300 and 600 a year. If this plan is implemented they will pay between $600 and 1200 a year, an unsustainable increase for families already struggling with a tough economy. And that’s the CHEAPER plan! If the EPA forces ALCOSAN to implement the more expensive plan those figures could double again or even triple.

Luckily there are many committed groups working to push for green infrastructure solutions to this problem. The Clean Rivers Campaign, a coalition of environmental groups, economic justice groups, the faith community, and grassroots community leaders, have been working closely with elected officials, the EPA, and ALCOSAN to push for a better plan that creates jobs, cleans up our neighborhoods, and solves this problem at the lowest possible cost to ratepayers.

If we’re going to meet the terms of the consent decree right we will have to work together to find a regional, watershed-based solution that doesn’t just involve building giant septic tanks under our rivers. We are blessed with natural resources that are built for capturing stormwater – we just need the political will to work together and use them.

This entry was posted on Friday, August 24th, 2012 at 2:35 pm and is filed under Reforming the Investment of Public Dollars. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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