National Academy news: Water quality improvement in southwestern Pennsylvania


PITTSBURGH -- A comprehensive, watershed-based approach is needed to effectively address water quality problems in southwestern Pennsylvania, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The report outlines a technical framework called the Three Rivers "Comprehensive Watershed Assessment and Response Plan" (CWARP) to deal with these problems, and suggests ways to better unify and coordinate the region's efforts. Currently, water planning and management in southwestern Pennsylvania is highly fragmented; federal and state governments, 11 counties, hundreds of municipalities, and other entities all play roles, but with little coordination or cooperation.

"Creating a cooperative regional effort will be challenging, but southwestern Pennsylvania's water planning issues need to be addressed on that scale, using a comprehensive approach that takes into account multiple uses, needs, and impacts, such as water supply, habitat protection, recreation, and future development," said Jerome Gilbert, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and a consulting engineer in Orinda, Calif. "The region's waters have long been an important asset, but for the area to reach its full potential in terms of recreational use of the rivers and riverbank development, it is important to clean up the waters further and meet standards for water quality." The committee was asked to assess the region's water quality problems and recommend ways that multiple jurisdictions could work together to solve them.

The most pressing water quality problem with the potential to cause human health problems is microbial contamination from improperly managed human wastewater, says the report. In the region's main rivers -- the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio -- stormwater and sewer overflows during wet weather appear to be the major contributors. In many tributaries, microbial water quality does not meet standards even in dry weather, the report adds, which suggests contamination from failing septic systems. Livestock management practices in rural areas are likely adding pathogens to streams as well, though scarce data made it impossible to determine how much, the committee said. In addition to biological contaminants, acid drainage from abandoned coal mines continues to pollute area streams, though this water quality problem is broader than southwestern Pennsylvania and is being addressed by existing state and federal programs.

A pervasive lack of adequate data hampered the committee's ability to fully evaluate and prioritize the region's water quality problems and their adverse effects, the report says. For example, there is no evidence that southwestern Pennsylvania has experienced any recent disease outbreaks as a result of poor water quality, but significant gaps in public health monitoring prevented a thorough assessment. Efforts to collect more data on water problems -- and to use it to inform decisions and measure progress -- should be made as the region works to implement solutions, the committee said.

As a first step toward improving its waters, southwestern Pennsylvania should improve the use of its existing infrastructure. To this end, the committee strongly recommended that all of the watershed's wastewater collection systems comply with EPA's Capacity, Management, Operations, and Maintenance (CMOM) policy or a similar program.

The report's proposed approach should be used to plan and implement further improvements. CWARP's five-step framework could be used to identify and assess water problems, model their progression, formulate alternative strategies for addressing them, and implement strategies in an adaptive, flexible way. This will ensure that the region will get the most benefit from dollars invested in water quality improvement. The report explains in detail how CWARP could be implemented in southwestern Pennsylvania, but it could also be used as a model for other regions, as many of the problems and challenges addressed in this study can be found around the country.

In southwestern Pennsylvania's case, CWARP should be applied at each of four "scales": the river basin, the metropolitan (multicounty) region, rural areas, and the urban core. For each scale, the report suggests institutional structures to help unify the municipalities' various efforts to improve water quality. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, for example, is probably the best choice to lead water planning for the metropolitan region. But that commission would need to broaden its representation, the committee said, and should establish a Three Rivers Regional Water Forum to include representatives from local governments, the private sector, academia, and environmental organizations -- in short, any group that would play some role in implementing CWARP.

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN), which is largely responsible for managing wastewater for the City of Pittsburgh and 82 surrounding communities, should re-evaluate its draft long-term plan for controlling sewage and stormwater overflows, in light of the recently completed municipal consent orders initiated by EPA to enforce compliance with the Clean Water Act; ongoing negotiations regarding an ALCOSAN consent decree; compliance with CMOM; and information from CWARP as it is developed in the future. The CWARP framework is recommended for the development of ALCOSAN's final control plan and similar documents because of the data limitations and technical and institutional complexities that exist in southwestern Pennsylvania, the committee said. Furthermore, ALCOSAN and other wastewater treatment providers should investigate decentralized and innovative alternatives such as storing and treating overflows at remote locations or in nearby abandoned mines -- as is currently being evaluated by the Township of Upper St. Clair. A first step toward any of these options would be development of a system for real-time control of overflows -- a method that uses software to monitor, model, and manage flows.

Financing water quality improvements will not be easy given the magnitude of the problems, the report acknowledges. In choosing among strategies yielded by the CWARP process, organizations should let cost-effectiveness be their primary guide.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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