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Teeming waters: Study finds bacteria from sewage overflows at high levels in rivers

Sewage affects some of our rivers' most popular areas

Monday, July 02, 2001

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pittsburgh's rivers are as clean as your favorite swimming lake on most days but if you're looking for a place to fish, boat, water ski, row or swim after a rainstorm, you should probably stick to that lake.

On the Allegheny River, near Washington's Landing: A new water quality report of the city's rivers found that area and several others had high concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria after heavy rains that often flush sewage into the rivers. (John Beale/Post-Gazette)

A new study confirms the rivers' improved water quality -- recently and repeatedly evidenced by hatches of big, pollution-sensitive mayflies -- but also found that sewage bacteria climbs to unhealthy levels in all three rivers in wet weather and remains high for several days after the rain stops.

The sewage pollution is highest and remains higher longer along the river banks where most people come in contact with river water, according to the report by 3 Rivers--2nd Nature, a project of Carnegie Mellon University's Studio for Creative Inquiry.

And, in perhaps the study's most surprising finding, the 14 tributary streams that dump into the rivers' Pittsburgh Pool -- the area of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers around the Point and Downtown -- show high levels of fecal coliform at their mouths during both wet and dry weather.

Sewage discharges caused by storm overflows occur in hundreds of locations on 50 to 60 days a year and allow millions of gallons of untreated human waste and industrial pollutants to flush into local creeks and rivers.

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, Pittsburgh and surrounding municipalities have known since 1994 that they must significantly reduce those sewage releases. The cost of the work has been estimated at $3 billion, with two-thirds of that for work on sewers owned by Alcosan's 83 member municipalities.

The study, which analyzed water samples from a variety of river locations, identified two areas where high fecal coliform concentrations and public access overlap on the Allegheny River. One is just below the back channel of Washington's Landing, immediately down river from the Three Rivers Rowing Association dock; the other is along the bank near the Strip District and immediately upriver from two marinas and a waterfront restaurant.

Other areas where the fecal coliform levels are elevated even in dry weather are the Monongahela River below the Braddock Dam near the USX Edgar Thomson Works and the Braddock public boat launch, and under the Glenwood Bridge on the Hazelwood side of the river. On the Ohio River, sewage pollution indicators spike under the West End Bridge just below where Saw Mill Run enters the flow.

"There is a lack of information out there about our rivers and this report will help us recognize the nature of our opportunities," said Tim Collins, director of 3 Rivers--2nd Nature and a research fellow at the Studio for Creative Inquiry.

"Public use of the rivers and river recreation are blossoming in this post-industrial era and sometimes, as at Washington's Landing, these new uses are bumping up against problems caused by aging infrastructure."

The report said priority areas for additional study should be the area around Washington's Landing with particular emphasis on the back channel, the Braddock boat launch and the area targeted for North Shore development, along with the four marinas down river on the Ohio.

"Washington's Landing is off the charts because it has no or low flow through the shallow back channel and several storm sewer outflows and combined sewer outflows nearby," said John Schombert, director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather, a nonprofit organization that coordinates area sewer improvements. "It's one of the areas we need to prioritize, particularly when you look at its use."

Another high priority area for additional study is the 14 tributary streams, which have high levels of fecal coliform even in dry weather and, because of their length and location through populated areas, more potential for public access.

The project's water sampling at the stream mouths wasn't designed to identify sources or how much of the tributaries are polluted.

"The streams, many of which flow through municipal parks, are valuable for public use and access, but we don't know where the problems are," said Kathleen Knauer, a research associate with the Studio for Creative Inquiry and an environmental scientist at Alcosan.

"Obviously we need to take a closer look and do more study because of the access issues, and many municipalities are already working on that in the Alcosan service area," Knauer said. "They're an important part of the recreation equation and as important for biodiversity as the rivers are."

She said possible sources of the sewage contamination include old, broken or leaking sewer lines, illegal sanitary-storm sewer hookups, storm runoff and malfunctioning septic systems.

Even though the tributary streams are polluted and potentially unhealthy for people, they aren't dead. A just-completed biological assessment of the streams by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District has found an amazing array of aquatic insect, crustacean and fish life.

"In Homestead Run we found mayflies and a good cross-section of insect life," said Linda Stafford, a Corps biologist. "In almost all the streams we are finding tiny crayfish that should be more at home in spring creeks, plus an assortment of salamanders, darters and fish.

"Sure, the streams are not perfect. The coliform numbers are high and some of the clean water insects are missing. But, compared to what they used to be, they are much improved."

The water quality report details findings from the first of five years of sampling planned along the three rivers and their tributaries in Allegheny County. This summer, sampling is being conducted on the Monongahela between Duquesne and Elizabeth.

"This study is important because it presents honest-to-goodness data," said David Dzombak, an environmental engineer at Carnegie Mellon and a member of the project advisory committee. "We know we have a problem, but in the past we've had to discuss it in the abstract.

"This will make the public more aware of the impacts of sewage on water quality, and focus public debate and regional action to address the problems."

In addition to water quality assessment, the 3 Rivers--2nd Nature project, funded by a $1.25 million grant from the Heinz Endowments, will assess riverbank conditions, slope, access and vegetation.

Its goal is to gather information to help the public and elected officials how to better manage the rivers and their tributaries at natural systems and public amenities.

Collins said the project will hold four public meetings to review and discuss the first year's findings. The first was held on June 23 on Washington's Landing. The next is at 11 a.m. July 28 at an as-yet-undetermined location on the South Side.

"If we can think of our rivers as integrated systems and not isolated problems it changes our relationship to them," Collins said. "And hopefully it will allow us to begin to resolve some of these problems or at least begin to talk about them."

For more information on the next River Dialogue meeting or the 3 Rivers --2nd Nature project, contact Brean Associates at 412-244-3445, or

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