Pittsburgh Had Its Second Wettest Year Ever; Can The Region’s Infrastructure Handle All The Precipitation?

Sourced from Pittsburgh City Paper

This year could become the wettest year Pittsburgh has ever seen, and it’s capping off a very wet decade. Our old infrastructure might not be able to keep the water at bay.

As of Dec. 3, the Pittsburgh region saw 53.32 inches of precipitation in 2018, about four inches below the all-time record set in 2004.

According to the National Weather Service, the ten-year period from 2009 to now has produced more than 401 inches of precipitation. The previous ten-year period from 1999-2008 precipitated 399 inches, and the decade-long period from 1989-1998 produced 386 inches. In the 1980s, Pittsburgh only saw 368 inches of precipitation.

The increased number of floods and landslides are putting more stress on Pittsburgh’s already aging infrastructure. And with climate change hinting at more rain for the Steel City's future, some are calling for the region to take these infrastructure problems more seriously.

According to Greg Scott of Pittsburgh’s office of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the success of our stormwater system depends on precipitation levels staying within a typical range. Pittsburgh’s water-related infrastructure is experiencing three main shortfalls: municipal stormwater systems, locks and dams, and problems relating to landslides and lack of green infrastructure.

The ASCE recently released a report card for Pennsylvania’s infrastructure, giving the commonwealth a C- overall. For water-related infrastructure, the state did even worse, receiving D grades or below for inland waterways, stormwater, and wastewater. Scott says many of those deficiencies can be found in Pittsburgh.

To make better grades, prevent local government headaches, save taxpayers money, and possibly avoid catastrophic damage from precipitation, Scott says addressing Pittsburgh’s infrastructure shortfalls is necessary to keep the region above water.

Municipal stormwater utilities

When it rains too much in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati is the one who pays dearly.

Pittsburgh has a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO), meaning that enough rain — 1/10th of inch in a short time period — will cause stormwater and wastewater (from our toilets) to mix and then overflow into the rivers. During heavy storms, that muck makes it into the Ohio River and down to Cincinnati, where it is treated to become drinking water.

And with Pittsburgh getting so much precipitation this year, and over the last decade, that has happened a lot. “Last year, for 140 days of the boating season, there was a discharge of CSOs into the river,” says Scott.

Scott says reducing CSO overflows is important because Pittsburgh is starting to see our riverfronts as an asset, with riverfront development, parks, trails, and even increased water recreation.

Scott notes that the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) is currently in the midst of a decades-long infrastructure project to alleviate some CSO overflow issues. ALCOSAN has also heeded some of the advice of environmentalists to include more green infrastructure in their plan. Green infrastructure includes planting trees and rain gardens that soak up precipitation, instead of letting it run into the rivers.

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