Photo by Emily Elliot. Courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburghers have been paying a lot of attention to the air we breathe lately: Outrage over the repeated environmental violations at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works has fueled a larger debate about our region’s air quality.

Community activists are galvanized, some local politicians are demanding action and the Allegheny County Health Department is taking U.S. Steel to federal court alongside local advocacy groups.

For Professor Emily Elliott, an environmental scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, the growing levels of public engagement are heartening, if selective.

“Air quality is a regular part of the conversation in this region,” Elliott tells NEXTpittsburgh. “What I hope will happen is that water gets the same level of appreciation and seriousness attended to it.”

That’s the central mission of the team at the University’s Pittsburgh Collaboratory for Water Research, Education, and Outreach, where Elliott serves as director.

“The hope is that through the Pittsburgh Water Collaboratory we can connect the research expertise — not just in our department at Pitt, but all across the university,” says Elliott. “We have sociologists working on water equity issues, we have economists studying cost-benefit analysis of different water mitigation strategies, we have folks in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs looking at international water rights issues.”

Elliott explains that our region is confronting a twofold water emergency.

First, there’s the long-standing issue of the county’s water and sewage system: “Pittsburgh, like many other cities, has infrastructure that was built 100 years ago,” says Elliott. “It’s reaching the end of its design life.”

Currently, stormwater mixes in with raw sewage as it drains and then overflows into our streams and rivers every time there’s more than one-tenth of an inch of rain, she says, “which is a very routine rainfall event.”

County officials estimate that around nine billion gallons of sewage flow into our rivers every year.

As a result, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) has been operating under a federal consent decree since 2007 demanding the utility eliminate the overflows by 2026. But details on the multibillion-dollar plan have been slow to arrive, despite the fact that the need for stormwater management has never been more pressing.

The second emergency is this: Extreme weather made 2018 the wettest year on record, and 2019 has already seen numerous incidents of landslides and flooding.

“It’s an infrastructure crisis that’s meeting a changing climate crisis,” Elliott says.

While the challenge is grave, there is good news: Pittsburgh has the benefit of dozens of local groups closely studying the issue. In addition to experts at Pitt, there are researchers from the city, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

In an effort to kickstart conversations and share best practices, the Water Collaboratory held a series of meetings over the last year with these and other experts across Western Pennsylvania.

The first of several reports on their meetings went online this week, with several more coming this year.

“What we’re trying to do at the collaboratory is to bring all these folks together, and provide a bridge for them to work on these local and regional issues,” explains Elliott. “Right now most of that space is occupied by consultants, and that’s fine. But what we’re trying to do is provide a pathway for more science to enter the policy-making in the area around these issues.”

Beyond staving off environmental catastrophe (no small task), Elliott says a sustained, cross-sector push to improve our water quality could produce massive benefits for our quality of life.

“What if all the kids from the Hill District took field trips to the Allegheny River to go fishing? What if our riverfronts were much more interactive places, where people could not worry about touching the water and getting some sort of gastrointestinal distress?”

“We have this enormous asset flowing through our rivers,” says Elliott. “The potential for making this region even better is just not being recognized.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.