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4 Special Issue for Pittsburgh: Our Rivers CRADLE OF THE AMERICAN INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION Mark Twain once compared a river to a book with endless stories to tell: "The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book, a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger but which told its mind to me with- out reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice, and it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day." If one river can be the source of a thousand stories, said Mark Nordenberg, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, just imagine how many might be told in this city, where the Allegheny and the Monongahela converge to form the Ohio. In many respects, he suggested, the story of Pittsburgh is the story of its nvers. Hugh Henry Brackenridge, also a man of letters generally credited with writing the first American novel, though he was better known in this community for his service as a legislator, member of the state supreme court, and founder of the University of Pittsburgh beheld the settlement at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers and was transfixed by a powerful and pre- scient vision of its future. "This town," he said in the 1780s, "must be a place of great manufactory indeed, the greatest on the continent or in the world." Pittsburgh did become the cradle of the American industrial revolution, Nordenberg said, and its rivers played a huge role in its growth. By the early 1800s, boat making was the city's most important industry; the world's first steamboat, in fact, was built here to make river travel easier. *This chapter was prepared from the transcript of the meeting by Steven J. Marcus as the rappor- teur. The discussions were edited and organized around major themes to provide a more readable summary and to eliminate duplication of topics. 20
SPECIAL ISSUE FOR PITTSBURGH: OUR RIVERS The growth of other industries followed. As Franklin Toker noted in his book Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait the city gave (or rather, sold) the world its first mass- produced oil, steel, aluminum, and glass. It created, through Heinz, the world' s first hygienically packaged food, and Westinghouse pioneered the generation of AC electricity to supplement Edison' s DC. 21 If one river can be the source of a thousand stories, just imagine how many might be told in this city, where the Allegheny and the Monongahela converge to form the Ohio. In many respects, the story of Pittsburgh is the story of its rivers Mark Nordenberg There was another side, of course, to Pittsburgh's industrial might the high ecological price it paid as the capital of American manufacturing. Though long- time residents might still remember the city' s street lights having to be lit in the middle of the day, Pittsburgh has made significant progress in overcoming that part of its legacy. Focused attention also has been paid to water quality and to nver use. To some extent, those changes are tied to the transformation of the regional economy. In traveling Pittsburgh's riverbanks today, one sees high-technology developments of the University of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Carnegie Mellon University where steel mills used to be. "It has been said that rivers are highways that move on, and bear us wither we wish to go," said Nordenberg. Today, the Pittsburgh community is charting a new course that it hopes will be not only be economically productive but ecolog- ically responsible and environmentally healthful. "Success will depend in no small measure," he concluded, "on clean rivers used in ways that make them one of our most important regional assets and amenities." After Nordenberg's introduction, a panel of speakers discussed the pollution of Pittsburgh's rivers, the causes, and specific ways to clean them up, as well as plans for the reclamation and revitalization of the city's riverfronts to better serve its people. POLLUTED RIVERS, SEWAGE OVERFLOWS In the spirit of Joel Tarr's earlier point that Pittsburghers should get "beyond celebration," Jared Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University, noted the need for major action to improve the water quality of the city's rivers. While they are cleaner than they used to be, he observed, they're "not as clean as we think they are." Indeed, there is still a long way to go. For example "river advisories" (official notices that the water is unsafe for human contact) have been in effect since 1994 for an average of 37 percent of the summer recreational season. In the most recent two years for which data are available (2000 and 2001), the seasonal average has been 50 percent that is,
22 ~ s..:,:~.~;~ W..~.,..~..:: 5.:~.~..~.-.i iffy i..- i,3-' d-~..~-~: ., CSo om~.~S M~:~g $- · ENSURING ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH IN POSTINDUSTRIAL CITIES : :; FIGURE 4-1 Water quality problems are caused by a number of sources, including: combined sewer overflows (CSOs), malfunctioning on-lot septic systems, and homes without sewage treatment of any kind. Contamination from these sources flow down- stream and across jurisdictional boundaries. SOURCE: Southwestern Pennsylvania Water and Sewer Infrastructure Project Steering Committee, 2002. Reprinted with permission. river advisories were issued on half of the days between mid-May and mid- September. The pollution of Pittsburgh's rivers has three basic causes (see Figure 4-1), Cohon said, and the leader by far is overflow from combined-sewer systems (which carry sewage and storm water runoff alike). During rainstorms the flow into the system increases enormously, overwhelming the capacity of the pipes to carry it or the treatment plants to treat it. Consequently, much of the system's load, including raw (untreated) sewage, is dumped into the rivers. With 414 outfalls, Pittsburgh's Allegheny County leads all of the nation's other counties in combined-sewer overflows (CSOs; see Figure 4-2~. The state of Pennsylvania is a "leader" as well, topping out at 1,671 Michigan, by con- trast, has 725, and New Jersey has 307. Pittsburgh's CSOs, moreover, are often activated even under dry conditions; because this urban sewage system is old and degraded, water seeping into the pipes increases flow beyond the level for which the system was designed, creat- ing "uncontrolled overflows." The second reason for Pittsburgh's polluted rivers is failing septic systems. This is a particular problem here, Cohon said, because the region is cursed with bad soil with regard to its suitability for septic systems. By federal standards, in
SPECIAL ISSUE FOR PITTSBURGH: OUR RIVERS States with the Most Combined Sewer Overflows Rank State 1 Pennsylvania Ohio 3 New York 4 Indiana 5 lilinois 6 Michigan 7 Massachusetts 417 8 Kentucky 369 9 New Jersey 307 10 Maine 277 csos , /1 1,671 1,507 \ 1,075 \ a. 944 \ - 773 725 23 ~ _ C_ . . ommun~t~es with CSOs / LIZ) ~7 755 CSOs in SW PA FIGURE 4-2 Pennsylvania ranks number one in the United States for the most combined sewage overflows (CSO). These overflows are predominantly concentrated in southwest- ern Pennsylvania. State level CSO information based in part on unofficial EPA estimates, 1998. SOURCE: Southwestern Pennsylvania Water and Sewer Infrastructure Project Steering Committee, 2002. Reprinted with permission. fact, a very small fraction of the land is suitable for septic systems. Furthermore, it is estimated that about half of the existing septic systems are "failed" and there are some 300,000 of them. Finally, the third reason: 27,000 local homes have no sewage connection whatsoever! Strictly speaking, this has been illegal for 33 years, and it should simply not exist anywhere in America today, especially not in an urbanized area that considers itself sophisticated, Cohon said. These three major sources especially the first two present a complicated regional problem. For one thing, the locations of CSO outfalls, failing septic tanks, and drinking-water intakes are all interspersed. It is also a problem with high stakes: expensive to fix yet expensive not to fix. It bears directly on the Pittsburgh area's ability to develop economically a very high priority in this region. Within many local jurisdictions, there are "tap- in restrictions" additional main sewer lines or laterals (the pipes that run from buildings to the main line) are forbidden because the system is already over- taxed. The result is that nothing new can be built in these locales.
24 ENSURING ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH IN POSTINDUSTRIAL CITIES Solving this problem will be a major undertaking in terms of regional inter- governmental cooperation, not only because this region has never attempted such an effort before but because it faces a particular challenge in doing so. The Pittsburgh area's fragmentation is renowned; locals acknowledge that the num- bers of police departments, school districts, and so on, usually exceed those of any other region of this size. The same is true, perhaps by even greater margins, when it comes to water and sewage. The 11-county Southwest Pennsylvania region has 492 individual entities that provide water or sewage service to the population. These entities, together with the almost 600 local political juris- dictions and more than one million households, will need to cooperate on an unprecedented scale. It is also going to be expensive, said Cohon. He and his colleagues in the Allegheny Conference on Community Development (self-described as "a private leadership group dedicated to improving the quality of life and economy of the southwestern Pennsylvania region") have estimated a total cost of $10 billion, with the biggest part being some $8 billion to repair and expand the existing sewer and sewage-treatment system. For example, storage needs to be designed into the system so that when it rains there is a way to hold the water together with the raw sewage rather than discharging it, and then treat it (with the aid of enhanced capacity) after the storm surge passes. These costs can be reduced in several ways, he said, beginning with regional cooperation there are substantial economies of scale in sewage collection and treatment. Building one big treatment plant instead of two smaller ones, for example, can save a great deal of money. Savings are also possible through use of the latest technology. Typical costs to install a lateral and roughly half of the region's existing laterals are broken and need to be replaced run from $5,000 to $10,000. But new so-called "trench- less" technology obviates the need to dig up a lawn it is faster, less disruptive, and relatively inexpensive (on the order of $1,000~. Another approach is to increase the revenues generated by Pittsburghers' sewage bills certainly an unpopular message that no politician would wish to convey. Cohon maintained, however, that the region's homeowners actually pay less for sewage services at present than do their counterparts in most others parts of the country. But even if the Pittsburgh area does reduce costs through regional coopera- tion and the latest technology, and it increases revenues through higher rates, a major gap will still remain that can only be filled by funds from the federal and state governments. To coordinate these three approaches and deal with the remaining shortfall, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development has been working to create a virtual regional body the Watershed Alliance for the Three Rivers Region (WATRR) that would provide critical services from three existing organizations:
SPECIAL ISSUE FOR PITTSBURGH: OUR RIVERS 25 · Education and technical assistance through 3 Rivers Wet Weather, Inc., a pilot project funded by the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Goal- and priority-setting through the Southwest Pennsylvania Commis- sion, which is representative of the entire region, as its board consists primarily of the commissioners or county executives of each of the counties. · Advocacy that is, strong representation in Harrisburg and Washington- through the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce/Southwest Penn- sylvania Growth Alliance. . The Conference has also convinced the National Research Council to under- take a national study, using Pittsburgh as the focal point, on the issue of combined-sewer overflows and how to address it regionally. The NRC accepted the challenge and created a committee of national experts that has been meeting now for about a year, with one year left to go. The resulting report will be very important not just for this region but for the entire nation, Cohon said, as will the efforts of the region' s organizations, experts, and citizens. In the near term, he suggested that a number of steps could be implemented. These include: · help regional organizations take responsibility for implementation, · launch a long-term program of public education and outreach, · demonstrate how to apply best technologies and approaches to address specific problems, · get key studies underway, · seek public and private assistance (e.g., funding and policy change, regu- latory support). "If you can solve the problem in Pittsburgh," he concluded, "you can do it anywhere." RIVERS AS OUR FUTURE The charge of the Riverlife Task Force, according to Executive Director Lisa Schroeder, is to create a master plan and vision for Pittsburgh's rivers, coordinate what has been a series of individual development projects, and "make Pittsburgh's riverfronts among the most spectacular in the world." In pursuit of these goals, the mayoralty appointed Task Force consisting of 46 civic leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors is taking two mutually reinforcing approaches. First, in trying to set a new paradigm for involving the public in the planning process, it has held over 120 meetings ranging in size from get-togethers in community-halls or church basements to
26 ENSURING ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH IN POSTINDUSTRIAL CITIES full-scale regional sessions in the convention center. Second, the Task Force has convened the owners of riverfront property; remarkably, there are but six major riverfront-land owners within the study area. Engaging them is critical, Schroeder pointed out, "because we are working to create a public domain on land that is not in all instances public." Basically, the Riverlife Task Force is working to ensure that the coming together of Pittsburgh's three rivers their confluence functions as the center of the region, she said. "This river joins our communities. It can become the thread of our public space and the way in which we tie all amenities and all of our public domain together." In our public-meeting process, Schroeder noted, "there was no more consis- tent and powerful message than that people want connections to the rivers. They want to get to the rivers, they want to move along the rivers, they want to touch the rivers." But trying to eliminate impediments to the riverfronts, given the city's topography, is no mean challenge. The simple fact that much of this region's flatland lies alongside the rivers means that it is layered over by a complex web of elevated highways, railroad tracks, and parking lots. In effect, Pittsburgh's best and most valuable real estate is populated by vehicles. The crux of the Task Force's proposal is to create a public park, Three Rivers Park, where community life could be centered in the heart of the con- fluence at the heart of the basin with a continuous rim of green, open, public space around the edges, and commercial development flanking the sides that contribute to the creation of that public domain. Working within, at a minimum, the 50-foot setback that exists under current zoning regulations, the space would be linked along the shoreline, across the bridges, and through water landings- across the water. The existing Point Park, at the rivers' confluence, would be the center of the extended park, which of course would include the water itself. Schroeder cited the Task Force' s nine guiding principles that underlie its plan: . Organize riverfront investment in relationship to the shared vision of Three Rivers Park as Pittsburgh' s premier public domain. · Reinforce the power of place by revealing and seeking inspiration in history. · Enhance the shoreline experience and the range of uses encouraged to locate along the riverbanks. · Increase connections to the rivers, especially from the neighborhoods, and endeavor to create new neighborhoods near the rivers. Activate the water sheet itself by incorporating diverse uses while re- maining cognizant of potential conflicts among them. · Celebrate the City of Bridges through lighting and pedestrian amenities and by incorporating them into the river trail system. .
SPECIAL ISSUE FOR PITTSBURGH: OUR RIVERS 27 · Improve regional connections and the continuity of public green space along the rivers' edges. · Consolidate transportation and minimize industrial impediments at the rivers' edges. · Incorporate the values of urban ecology and sustainability into the imple- mentation of the plan. "We are now working to define what that public edge can and should look like, what the landscaping framework can be, what kind of connections can pass through private development to link the public realm to the private, and what kind of connections can become public links from the landscape into the rivers and the park (see Figure 4-3)," said Schroeder. The idea is to "create, at the end of the day, a place that is unforgettable, that is Pittsburgh, and that contributes to the human health of our environment." . ::~: ~ : :: ~ : ~ : :: i: i: i: :~ ~ :: : ::: -,r>Y.~.~.y. ·.~ ~ ~ ~~ .~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~~ ~ ~ ~ ~ --, -. ~~ ~~ ~ T~ ~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~ ~~ ~ ~ ~3Y15~S'~-- ~:~: ~ ~ ~~ :: :: : ::~: :: I: :: ~ :~ : :: ~ ~: - : ~ Aft: :::::: ~ Aft: :~ ~ ~ ~ :::: ~ ~ ~ : I: :. ~ I: ~ :~' ~ ~ :: .-'',--.. FIGURE 4-3 The map reflects topography natural landscapes waterscapes and public connections to the water. The arrows show important public byways and entries into the park system and the asterisks denote a series of water landings the edge places where public uses may reinforce each other. SOURCE: Riverlife Task Force. Reprinted with . . permlsslon.