Pitt faculty heading up regional group researching area’s stormwater control

People meeting around table


As the summer brings thunderstorms to the Pittsburgh region, a team of Pitt researchers and more than 30 organizations outlined a strategy to track the effectiveness of green infrastructure projects designed to help control the flow of stormwater.

This white paper outline from the Pittsburgh Collaboratory for Water Research, Education and Outreach, released on June 19, was the result of a research agenda meeting in Nov. 20, 2018. 

There were 32 regional stakeholders involved in this meeting, including the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN). The collaboratory was founded in January 2018 by Pitt Department of Geology and Environmental Science faculty with funding provided by the Heinz Endowments.

“The amount of insight you got from these folks was just tremendously valuable in terms of what they saw as being key knowledge gaps,” said Emily Elliott, director of the collaboratory and associate professor of geology and environmental science in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences and adjunct associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering. 

The paper born from this meeting, “Green Infrastructure for Stormwater Management: Knowledge Gaps and Approaches,” outlines a strategy for researchers to identify, monitor, gather and research green infrastructure projects throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

These projects, according to the paper, primarily focus on slowing or rerouting stormwater to keep it out of clean waterways and sanitary systems. Some examples include renewed green spaces, infiltration trenches and rain barrels.

And Pitt is well-positioned to take charge on this issue because of its various sustainability initiatives, Elliott said.

Elliott described Pittsburgh as a region “under the gun” from the Environmental Protection Agency to solve its noted environmental issues, especially air pollution. However, stormwater isn’t given as much attention.

“The challenges that this region faces with regard to water are as important, if not more important than air quality,” Elliott said. “The climate is changing; the problems we have with flooding are going to get worse and not better.”

In a year, Elliott added, more than 9 billion gallons of water contaminated with raw sewage is produced, according ALCOSAN’s Wet Weather Plan from 2012. And much of it ends up in streams and rivers.

Elliott said a key theme brought up repeatedly at the meeting was that even though governments have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into green infrastructure projects, data have not been collected to track their effectiveness. There also isn’t a clear approach to collect and monitor it. And if there is a database, there is no coordinated data sharing, Elliott added.

“The thing that came up over and over again, from everybody at that meeting, was there’s no data, we don’t know if it’s working,” Elliott said. “What if we’re spending all this money on green infrastructure, and it’s not going to do what we need it to do?”

To address this problem, participants at the collaboratory proposed the creation of a database to track and compare information from these projects. 

This data would ideally be publicly accessible and would help develop best practices on stormwater management. It also could provide potential collaborations between universities, nonprofit organizations, the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

It’s a bit too early to talk about the specific scope and cost of a database of this nature, said Daniel Bain, associate professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Science. This issue is very complex and has long affected the region.

This white paper is necessary to help cut through Pittsburgh’s “fractured governance,” Bain said.

“You know, 300 boroughs in Pittsburgh and .... suburbs, to get that many different groups of local government on one page is just a hard task. But to do the kind of comprehensive management you need to do, you have to do it,” Bain said.

The paper also called for the database to be managed by people other than academics “because there’s so many cases of academic databases that are decrepit or disappeared,” Bain said. The Pennsylvania Data Center is one of the proposed organizations to handle it.

Bain hopes this white paper ends up in the hands of the “people who are making arguments every day,” such as small groups working to research the topic, the executive leadership of large utility companies and other places.

So far, the collaboratory has had two other meetings, and plans to generate white papers from them throughout the year. The second meeting, held in January, covered water quality, and the third, held in April, focused on flooding.

Elliott emphasized that collaboration is crucial to tackle these complex water issues. The overall goal is to get community stakeholders to collaborate and ultimately work to solve these water issues.

“It’s not a one institution job,” Elliott said. “There’s got to be a concerted effort of folks working together to figure out what data do we need to collect? And how do we do it? And how do we maintain it? Because it’s not trivial.”

Donovan Harrell is a reporter for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.