Will Pickering
PWSA Executive Director Will Pickering.

Gray vs. green infrastructure

One challenge PWSA will face going forward is how to prioritize green infrastructure projects across the city, Pickering said. Green infrastructure projects use landscaping and plants to manage stormwater rather than underground pipes, and advocates say it provides additional health and economic benefits.

PWSA published a Green First plan in 2016 that laid out around $700 million in potential stormwater projects. Weimar previously had said PWSA was planning to spend more than $130 million on stormwater projects over five years but had not yet begun.

PWSA is revising its stormwater plans, Pickering said, now that ALCOSAN’s consent decree was finalized in 2019. The consent decree commits ALCOSAN to spending billions of dollars on expanding its treatment plant and building underground tunnels to reduce the amount of sewage in the rivers.

This is a disappointment to some advocates who thought PWSA had taken leadership on green infrastructure projects in the city. “Everyone was hoping [PWSA] would carry the mantle, and they dropped it,” said John Stephen, who is leading the Negley Run Task Force, one of the biggest proposed green infrastructure projects in the city. “This region needs a stormwater leader. We don’t have one. It’s continually passing the buck.”

Tom Hoffman, an organizer at the Sierra Club who has led the Our Water Our Rivers campaign, said he supports Pickering. He believes Pickering’s work in Washington, D.C., where the city took on innovative green infrastructure projects, shows Pickering will support the projects as much as he can.

“Will has always been pretty willing to work with us,” Hoffman said. “So we’ve been, so far, very excited to see Will. We thought that was a good choice.”

The Highland 1 reservoir in Highland Park. Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource.

Pickering said PWSA is still committed to the region’s two largest stormwater projects, at Four Mile Run and Negley Run. And it is planning on moving forward with a stormwater fee that will provide additional revenue for stormwater projects. And there will still be opportunities to address stormwater issues, particularly where it impacts public health, through flooding, basement backups and sewer discharges.

Pickering said PWSA has been focused on its drinking water program, replacing lead lines and planning large infrastructure upgrades, and now has to come up with a new stormwater vision that fits in with its other plans. He doesn’t want PWSA to pay for stormwater work that ALCOSAN’s plan already covers. That would make it so that ratepayers were paying twice to remove sewer overflows from the city’s rivers.

Because they’re looking at more than $700 million in projects, Pickering said, “it’s our responsibility when we’re choosing projects and locations that make sense to look twice.”

COVID adjustments

Days after PWSA requested its rate increase in early March, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the economy to go into recession and nearly tripled Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate to 13.7%. Pickering said he is hoping to compromise on a lower rate increase that will give PWSA the money to take on large infrastructure projects while limiting the impact on rate payers during this uncertain time.

PWSA is predicting that its own revenues will fall 11% this year, as it put a moratorium on water shut-offs. More customers are paying their bills than they initially predicted, Pickering said, and revenue had only fallen by about 3.5% as of June’s board meeting.

Negotiating the right rate to keep customers happy and PWSA on course will be a challenge. But it’s the kind of challenge that Pickering was promoted to take on.

Customers lost trust in PWSA in the era before Weimar took over, Pickering said. He thinks that recent water-quality test results, which put PWSA in compliance with federal lead requirements, show PWSA is on the right path. Now, Pickering said, PWSA gets more complaints about the road work they are doing to replace lead lines than about lead in the water.

“I no longer want PWSA to be a four letter word around Pittsburgh,” Pickering said.

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

This story was fact-checked by Emily Briselli.

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