In 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initially cited more than 50 communities in the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) service area for sewage overflows that violate the federal Clean Water Act of 1972. The EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice threatened litigation or administrative action against these municipalities and ALCOSAN that would total $275 million in penalties.
To address this critical issue, ALCOSAN and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD), in a unique partnership, joined forces to create the 3 Rivers Wet Weather Demonstration Program (3RWWDP) in 1998 to help the 83 ALCOSAN municipalities address the region's sewage overflow problem.
Since its inception, 3RWW has assisted communities in a variety of ways, including investing $10.5 million in 33 innovative sewer-related projects throughout Allegheny County. In the first five years, much of the funding was used to support technology demonstrations such as pipe bursting, trenchless technologies, stream removal and sewer separations that other communities could model.
However over the last decade, 3RWW has also focused its resources and support on multi-municipal projects, particularly those that include studies or activities that lead to sewer system consolidation. Through our regional approach to problems, 3RWW has saved millions of dollars for the ratepayers of southwestern Pennsylvania, while providing invaluable tools to support a long-term viable solution to the problem.
Here are some of the milestones 3RWW has accomplished since our founding:
- 1999: Formation of Stakeholder’s Committee and Advisory Panels
3RWW created a Stakeholder’s Committee of approximately 25 elected officials, municipal representatives, engineers and environmental groups who met regularly to help build commitment, define the organization’s best course of action and increase awareness among municipalities. We also recruited volunteers for multiple Advisory Panels—Science and Technology, Citizens and Institutional, Finance and Stormwater. Each panel comprising 25-30 specialists, such as engineers, financial professionals, municipal officers and environmental advocates, met several times a year to discuss specific wet weather issues according to their panel's focus.
- 2001: The Development of Basin Groups
The Eastern, Northern and Southern Basin Groups were formed to help educate municipal officials, encourage communities to share resources and explore regionalization options. The formation of these groups resulted in an open dialogue with the regulatory agencies regarding an administrative consent order to comply with the Clean Water Act.
- 2002-2003: Consensus-Building Process for Municipal Consent Orders
Over an 18-month period, 3RWW held 150 meetings of solicitors, engineers and elected officials, as well as smaller core representative stakeholder groups regarding a consensus-based version of the municipal consent orders. The consent order, ultimately negotiated between municipalities and three regulatory agencies, included no penalties for past violations, its requirements and deadlines were consistent and feasible across all communities, and it set the foundation for regional approaches to managing the municipal sewage collection system throughout Allegheny County.
- 2004: Regional Compliance with Municipal Consent Orders
In early 2004, all 83 communities signed municipal consent orders requiring assessment and repair of their sewer systems. While the order requirements and deadlines were consistent for all communities, no protocols were defined for approach or method of compliance. 3 Rivers developed Basin Engineers’ and Managers’ Groups to define engineering protocols and to continue exploring and implementing inter-municipal strategies to the wet weather problem. 3RWW led the way with regional compliance approaches for the municipalities beginning with the coordination of the mapping of more than 80,000 manholes and more than 4,000 miles of sewers throughout the 83 municipalities. A highly detailed computerized map using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, was made accessible online to communities for integrating data collected during assessment and evaluation activities required in the order and for information sharing among neighboring municipalities. For the first time, the municipal sewer systems could be viewed in a single overall and standardized format.
- 2005-2006: Regional Flow Monitoring Plan and Municipal Data Support Site Development
In 2005-2006, 3RWW, using federal support, managed the development of a flow monitoring plan on behalf of the municipalities that reduced the number of flow monitors from 900 to 520 by using a regional placement approach. 3RWW also developed the Municipal Data Support (MDS) site, an easily accessible online database of information to assist communities in compliance with their municipal consent orders.
- 2007-2008: Flow Monitoring Implementation and MDS Site Enhancement
In 2007, 3 Rivers Wet Weather created a Flow Monitoring Implementation Team to coordinate with ALCOSAN on quality assurance and control measures to assure the flow monitoring program met the requirements of the municipal consent orders. (Through ALCOSAN’s consent decree in 2008, the Authority committed to conducting the flow monitoring program on behalf of the communities.) The system-wide flow monitoring data collected, which will be critical to the development and implementation of the long-term wet weather control plan, is housed on the MDS site, along with the GIS mapping data and additional tools and resources added in the last several years to support regionalization and long-term sustainable solutions. (See below.)
- 2009-2010: Feasibility Studies & Laying the Foundation for Long-term Sustainable Solution
The 3RWW Feasibility Study Working Group (FSWG) was formed in 2009 to assist municipalities in the complex task of evaluating alternatives for treating, storing or conveying sewage from their communities to the ALCOSAN System. The FSWG has worked with municipalities and their engineers to standardize engineering approaches and 3 Rivers will continue to assist municipalities in sewersheds that are multi-municipal and technically complex to develop alternatives to be included in their municipal feasibility studies. These feasibility studies will be provided to ALCOSAN for inclusion in the region’s long-term wet weather control plan.
To help the municipalities as they work with ALCOSAN on the long-term control plan, 3RWW provided access to an essential planning tool, an interactive view of the region’s sewer maps on a Google Map platform. The 3RWW Sewer Atlas is accessible through the Municipal Data Support site, which has become a regional database of information to support not only short-term compliance goals, but also long-term governance issues (i.e. consolidation of the sewer system). In 2010, we populated the MDS site with additional resources, such as a library of existing municipal agreements and a municipal asset information system.
Finally, in support of the movement toward consolidation, 3 Rivers awarded grants (using state funding) to six projects representing 43 communities and authorities, who are collaborating to explore options for consolidating their sewer collection systems.