Metropolis World Congress
METROPOLIS 2017 MONTRÉAL - PITTSBURGH'S WATER ISSUES
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By Cori Marshall
The city of Pittsburgh gained much attention two weeks ago when President Trump announced that the United States federal government would pull out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Trump emphatically stated that he "was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris." Kevin Acklin, Chief of Staff at Office of the Mayor in Pittsburgh said in his presentation that minutes later "the Mayor burst into my office with his cell phone very angrily [saying], he said Pittsburgh!" Acklin said "we quickly reminded the President that he lost the election in [the city] by about 80% of the vote.
The Metropolis World Congress provided a window on issues that cities around the world are facing, and what they are doing to address them. Pittsburgh has a very particular water issue, it has too much of it. Acklin said that the city has an "abundance of water largely because of the Great Lakes." The problem is compounded because the city’s "infrastructure is operating on systems that are over a hundred years old."
Acklin admitted that "keeping the basic public good of fresh and safe water, keeping residents free from flooding, and sewer overflows are the number one issue in the city of Pittsburgh."
Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, is home to approximately 2.3 million residents and "has 130 municipalities," Acklin said. This complicates the water problem because all of these municipalities are serviced by the same system.
The problem is not just that one system is servicing 130 municipalities, it is "the same municipal authority that collects all the sewage," Acklin said. The city has a combined drainage and sewage system. Acklin added that "when it rains, even a quarter of an inch, all of the water in the entire region and overflows into our rivers."
The City is now under a Federal Consent Decree to address the problem. Acklin said that "it will cost about $4 billion over the next ten years to separate the systems, and to provide for green and grey infrastructure." It is a large public works project and the city is just beginning.
Acklin said that the city’s water system is in this condition due to "bad investments over the years [and] organizational neglect." The Water Authority is a highly politicized entity, the board is appointed by and answer to the Mayor. Necessary rate hikes were sometimes overlooked at election time.
Pittsburgh is looking at new arrangements to address their ageing water and sewer system, and they are looking at Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) to accomplish the task. Other American cities that have had financial problems surrounding their Water Authorities have sold the entities and completely privatized. Acklin confirmed that the city "would prefer to keep this as a public asset," though they are looking at ways of bringing in private investment.
Forums like Metropolis allow cities like Pittsburgh to share their situation with authorities from other cities and perhaps through the interaction shared practices from other cities who have dealt with similar issues. International forums that gather urban leaders allow problems like the water issue in Pittsburgh to be approached from