One of the biggest problems facing Pittsburgh today is stormwater management. Our old and faulty stormwater system overflows easily and often, releasing sewage that contaminates our rivers. Now local government has released a draft of the City-Wide Green First Plan, a look at how green infrastructure could provide a comprehensive, cost-effective solution to the very problem.

And they want your feedback on it.

Under the direction of Mayor William Peduto, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) drafted the plan to address stormwater management in a way that would benefit residents, and make the region compliant with state and federal environmental regulations.

“We’re approaching this problem to improve the quality of our rivers, but also to improve the quality of our neighborhoods and the places where people live,” says PWSA sustainability manager James Stitt.

The plan would deal with stormwater by combining green infrastructure —based on vegetation, soils, and other elements to restore some of the natural processes required to manage water and create healthier urban environments —  with Pittsburgh’s existing sewer system.

In an official statement, Peduto said the approach could reduce local flooding, decrease basement backups, and help communities endure extreme weather events, as well as enhance economic development in the city.

Green First analyzed 13,700 acres in the city and proposes to manage runoff from 1,835 acres with green infrastructure. It also detailed six sewer sheds meant to manage overflows in areas where they occur the most, including Woods Run near Riverview Park, Heth’s Run in Highland Park, and Junction Hollow in Schenley Park.

The main goal of Green First focuses on keeping stormwater out of an ancient underground sewer system that delivers sewage and rainwater through the same pipes. During dry weather, flows are treated and released into the Ohio River by the Allegheny County Sanitation Authority (ALCOSAN). However, when heavy rains occur the system becomes overwhelmed, which leads to overflows of sewage and water into local rivers.

“It was initially designed when the city was a very different place, when it was okay to have a combined sewer system that might occasionally overflow into the rivers,” says Stitt, adding that many parts of the system date back to more than 100 years. “Now we get overflows with as little as a quarter-inch of rain or less in some places.”

The volume and frequency of the overflows regularly contaminate rivers, violating water quality regulations set by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA.

Adopting above-ground green infrastructure such as rain gardens, tree plantings, and water detention basins can prevent overflows by slowing the accumulation of stormwater in the current sewer system.

Stitt says the plan will also provide opportunities to connect neighborhoods and parks to the riverfronts with additions like walking trails and pedestrian bike paths.

“Once these rivers are clean, and we can get in them every single day of the year without having to worry about overflow issues, we want people to have access to them as well,” says Stitt.

Once approved, the plan would roll out over the next 20 to 30 years.

Want to add your take on the City-Wide Green First Plan? The City is now accepting public feedback.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated...