Implications Beyond Southwestern Pennsylvania
In the course of this study of water quality improvement in southwestern Pennsylvania, the committee gained knowledge and insights on several technical, policy, and institutional issues that have broader implications and might be considered useful by others responsible for national efforts to protect and enhance water quality. These implications are organized into six areas and discussed below.
Programs and organizations that gather water quality data in southwestern Pennsylvania are identified in Chapters 3 and 4 of this report. Each agency that collects such data does so under a federal, state, or local (sometimes private utility) mandate and budget. Although some states such as California with its basin plans, and Pennsylvania with its recent water resources legislation (e.g., Pennsylvania’s Water Resources Planning Act [WRPA] of 2002; see Chapter 6 for further information), have moved toward a framework for integrated data gathering, such coordinated development of water quality data is the exception rather than the rule. To change this paradigm and avoid the collection of redundant or useless data, coordinated and efficient monitoring efforts must be developed by appropriate entities for every watershed that is the subject of significant assessment and/or improvement.
Databases should be thoughtfully integrated, and modeling efforts coordinated. Frequently, data are collected by agencies with single-purpose directives, such as flow measurements by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and/or the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS); various water quality measurements by water utilities, wastewater dischargers, USGS, and others; and biological measurements by various state fishery and environmental agencies. Each state should give consideration to establishing a comprehensive water quality data management program, with a single “clearinghouse” designated to coordinate data collection and analysis for each (sub)watershed.
HEALTH AND ECOLOGICAL IMPACTS OF WATER QUALITY
Prudent investments in sewerage infrastructure require the establishment of reasonably direct relationships between causes of water quality degradation and their effects. Historically, these relationships have not generally been established. For example, it is clear that the excessive concentrations of microorganisms measured during and immediately after wet weather periods in the Three Rivers in Allegheny County have not been correlated with outbreaks of
gastrointestinal illness. Further, although the impacts of acid mine drainage on stream habitat and ecology are typically measured by water pH and heavy metal concentrations, downstream effects are more subtle, difficult, and expensive to identify (e.g., through bioassessments). Thus, current water quality planning, regulation, and action to protect both public health and the environment are based largely on indirect criteria, without the benefit of human health or ecological assessments. This national condition also applies in southwestern Pennsylvania. Therefore, when considering present and potential investments and improvement projects for wastewater management and drinking water treatment, a significant investment to improve environmental and health data to demonstrate the actual impact of water quality conditions on the environment and public health would seem justified.
POTENTIAL FEDERAL POLICY CONFLICTS WITH REGIONAL OPTIMIZATION
An important lesson learned from this examination of water quality management in southwestern Pennsylvania is that long-term control plans for combined sewer overflows (CSOs) should be designed so as to permit creative and flexible solutions that can be adjusted with knowledge and changing conditions. Current federal CSO policy could be interpreted to maximize delivery of such overflows to secondary wastewater treatment plants. Decisions to adopt such action as part of a control plan should be made in the context of a comprehensive plan for a specific management area. The comprehensive plan should consider a broad array of options that may be complementary to or alternatives of maximization of flow to secondary treatment plants. The preferred management strategy should be programmed over a reasonable time horizon to facilitate feedback from less capital-intensive elements to better inform decisions about more capital-intensive ones.
To one degree or another, existing federal and state policies support regional cooperative water quality management programs. However, most financial assistance has been directed toward projects that provide specific benefits, but which may not be optimal in a regional context. To the extent that funds available to a Comprehensive Watershed Assessment and Response Plan (“CWARP-type”) program can be applied with some flexibility, they should be directed toward achieving optimal regional benefits.
STAKEHOLDER REPRESENTATION AND PARTICIPATION
In the conduct of public affairs related to environmental quality, elected officials, their administrators, and private utility operators must consider a multitude of individual and collective concerns about strategies, costs, and local projects. In many parts of the country, these disparate concerns have delayed, significantly changed, or vetoed water quality improvement projects. The committee’s recommendation to establish a Three Rivers Regional Water Forum is an attempt to address this issue in southwestern Pennsylvania and, in concept, may be beneficial to other areas of the United States.
A 2000 survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Economy League and related national surveys (e.g., American Water Works Association Research Foundation) of public attitudes regarding water and investment indicate that there is more potential support for expenditures for water quality improvement than is generally believed by those responsible for water matters.
Although water quality was not a major issue in southwestern Pennsylvania in 2000, it was found to be of concern to about 50 percent of the people surveyed who believe that public health is threatened by sewage.
If the water quality improvement projects likely to result from a CWARP approach are to be successful, responsible officials must recognize that there is latent support among the public for significant investment in improvements. The only way to verify this support is to present programs and projects to the public for approval even though they will likely result in increased water or wastewater bills. This model may be applicable nationally, and to the extent possible, should address the concerns of special interests and provide long-range solutions to water quality problems.
PAYING FOR WATER QUALITY IMPROVEMENTS
The significant issue in water quality improvements needed and proposed for southwestern Pennsylvania—and, in large part, the reason this study was commissioned by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development—is their potentially high costs. As discussed in Chapters 5 and 6, past federal grants have been a substantial part of the solution to water quality problems for many communities nationwide, thus reducing the local burden, but in the committee’s judgment such federal grants are no longer likely to be available. Thus, it is likely that most future costs will be borne by the businesses and residents of southwestern Pennsylvania, or perhaps the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Since solutions will likely result in significant increases in costs of wastewater services, the region should seek ways to minimize the impact on those who are least able to pay.
More broadly, water and wastewater utilities will have to identify creative financing solutions as costs of water quality improvements increase. Although utilities can expect federal and perhaps state assistance in areas such as security, little more will be provided except in the case of smaller utilities with utility-wide affordability issues. Those water and wastewater systems that require asset upgrades to maintain their useful lives (e.g., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s [EPA’s] Capacity, Management, Operation, and Maintenance [CMOM] requirements for wastewater collection systems) and improvements to meet regulations will be faced with high costs. One option that should be considered is the creation of regional financing mechanisms. This could be accomplished by regional sharing of the burden for individuals with limited ability to pay. Accounts that fund lifeline or similar rates are one way to mitigate increasing monthly bills of those who can least afford them. This report includes a discussion of the importance of assessing the economic benefits of water quality improvement. A reliable assessment of such benefits would go a long way in evaluating the feasibility of new, larger investments.
REGIONALIZATION AND COOPERATION
According to an August 8, 2004, article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,1 Allegheny County contains the greatest number of municipalities per capita in the nation and this character generally typifies the 11-county study area. Thus, it should be no surprise that the region
Available on-line at http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/04221/357841.stm.
potentially can achieve tremendous advantages through cooperative actions in planning and implementing water quality improvements. Such advantages would include economies of scale, access to increasingly needed technology, and improved reliability and security. Nonetheless, there may be some resistance to regionalization in southwestern Pennsylvania and elsewhere, because some communities and utilities in the United States have a strong attachment to self-sufficiency and maintaining the status quo. This may be due to desires to control rate structures and use revenues for other municipal functions or to fears of job loss or of dealing with an unresponsive separate party with newly assigned responsibilities. It will be an important challenge in southwestern Pennsylvania and elsewhere to find ways to coordinate, consolidate, cooperate, and regionalize appropriate individual functions in a manner that preserves local identity while gaining the improved performance to achieve multiple water resource management objectives. As discussed in Chapter 6, the recommended creation of a regional water forum constitutes an opportunity to facilitate this development in southwestern Pennsylvania.