The Need for Consolidation
The Pittsburgh region’s deteriorated sewage infrastructure is creating unhealthy conditions in our streams and rivers. The sewage collection system within the ALCOSAN service area is an integrated network of systems that span more than 100 years. Adding to the complexity of the problem are the number of municipalities involved. Like gas and electricity services, sewage collection systems should be operated as a utility with rates and investments reflecting the real cost of providing the required level of service. One or more regional authorities may be required to provide the funding for the high capital costs of compliance and to more effectively operate and maintain the municipal sewage collection system. This type of regional approach would result in a system-wide, cost-effective, sustainable solution.
Currently, 83 municipalities and nearly a dozen authorities operate and maintain individual portions of the collection system independent of each other. However, this current process has significant limitations.
- It's inefficient as municipal systems are interconnected. Municipalities do not have complete control over flow from other communities—upstream and downstream. Therefore, municipalities need to cooperate to identify the causes of overflows and develop a system-wide solution.
- Most municipal systems are too small to make the investment in essential equipment for operation and maintenance. Regional management would make operation and maintenance more cost-effective.
- If individual municipalities make costly investments in one small part of the system, the investment may burden their ratepayers more than necessary. Communities must work together to create a common vision for the future—one that incorporates the benefits of area-wide management and organizational strength and sustainability.
- Municipalities must develop a plan to assess and evaluate the entire collection system in a standardized, methodical manner. If municipalities continue to work only within their own boundaries to assess, evaluate and rehabilitate their portion of the system, compliance will be more difficult to achieve and more costly overall.
- Regional planning identifies the investments that are needed most. Addressing problems only within individual municipal boundaries is ineffective because the repair or rehabilitation may not significantly contribute to a system-wide reduction in overflows.
- Regional organizations have greater buying power. Municipalities can purchase public works supplies in bulk and pass the savings on to their ratepayers.
- Regional financing saves money. Cooperative financing mechanisms, such as PENNVEST or municipal bond pools, can decrease the cost of borrowing money.
- Municipalities are subject to increasingly stringent requirements covering the management and operation of a sewage collection system. With hundreds of interconnections among the municipal collection systems, regionalizing the operation can save time and money by consolidating operations and thereby reducing the number of permits and inter-municipal agreements needed.
- A regional approach reduces municipal burden. Removing the responsibility for the sewer collection system from municipal government allows officials to focus on the primary functions of local government.
- Regionalism results in a stronger voice in Harrisburg and Washington. Where a single municipal voice is often lost at the state or federal level, a regional voice can carry significant influence on issues such as enforcement and funding.
Municipalities should anticipate receiving new consent orders for implementation of the long-term control plan shortly after the current order expires in 2015. These orders will require a significant capital investment, estimated to cost several billion dollars. Over the years, 3RWW has demonstrated the benefits of regional approaches that have saved the ratepayers an estimated $60 million or more. As we move into this next phase of addressing the wet weather problem, the current fragmented management of the sewer system will not be sustainable.
Exploring regional approaches for efficiently and cost-effectively rehabilitating the sewage infrastructure will not only help to meet federal, state and local requirements, it will help to improve southwestern Pennsylvania’s water resources for generations to come.