industrial structure on the river in Allegheny County
Home> Rivers Re-Valued> Where the Three Rivers Converge

Where the Three Rivers Converge:
Unassessed Waters and the Future of EPA's TMDL Program:
A Case Study

William V. Luneburg (2004)

The water resources of Allegheny County possess vast potential for improving the quality of life for those persons living and visiting Pittsburgh and vicinity. However, their use for recreational purposes, including casual contact in the course of enjoying the many public and private spaces that offer an escape from urban or heavily developed suburban living, is clouded by the lack of scientific data indicating whether and where disease-causing bacteria are present in the thousands of miles of streams and creeks that define the County’s landscape. What data exists, however, suggests that bacterial pollution may be a significant problem, at least in certain locations.

The absence of water quality data for Allegheny County with regard to human pathogens is a particularly troublesome gap against a background of more than thirty years of an intense Federal- State effort under the aegis of the Clean Water Act to identify polluted waters and commence clean-up efforts. Moreover, the lack of such data is not confined to Allegheny County but extends to the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Neither US EPA nor the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection nor any other federal or state agency has yet made it a matter of priority to survey the rivers, streams and creeks of the State for bacterial contamination. Moreover, private monitoring efforts with regard to this type of pollution have been very limited and, with one exception,1 confined to areas outside of Allegheny County.

In recent years, both EPA and the States have changed course from focusing regulatory efforts on identified industrial and municipal dischargers of waste to the more ambitious task of creating pollution reduction goals (i.e. total maximum daily loads or TMDLs) whose achievement will allegedly insure the attainment and maintenance of water quality standards (including those for bacteria). But, without an adequate baseline of existing water quality, that initiative is doomed to failure, as both levels of government readily concede.

Moreover, the task of assessing all of the Nation’s waters for all applicable water quality standards is immense, necessitating the efforts of not only governmental agencies but also private citizens organized in volunteer water quality monitoring groups. Hundreds of such organizations already exist, though in Pennsylvania few have indicated any interest to date in gathering water monitoring data for bacteria (measured as fecal coliform in Pennsylvania and, in other States, E. coli). Reasons for the lack of volunteer efforts to sample for fecal coliform include the professional sophistication and routine required to collect data that is usable for regulatory purposes and the expense of obtaining the necessary laboratory resources for sample analysis.

In view of 1) the Clean Water Act’s emphasis on achieving water quality standards, 2) EPA’s current efforts to fulfill that mandate, 3) the existing inadequacy of water quality information on such a significant parameter as disease-causing water-borne bacteria, and, finally, 4) the inability or unwillingness of governmental and other entities to create the necessary water quality baseline, it is imperative that a non-governmental entity be created to undertake the task of assembling and maintaining a publicly accessible database reflecting the water quality condition of the streams and creeks in Allegheny County in terms of bacterial pollution. Indeed, under EPA guidelines, in order to develop and implement controls to eliminate combined sewage overflows (CSOs) (a significant problem in the County that is currently the subject of a negotiated consent decree), there must be adequate ambient water quality monitoring.

The two most important contributions that the proposed organization could offer would be continuity of data gathering and analysis and professionalism in creating the necessary database. A stable and diversified funding base is the key to continuity and professionalism, necessary for data credibility, requires adherence to recommended quality assurance/quality control procedures, whose rigor will depend on the use(s) intended for the data. Ideally, in order to maximize the ability of the proposed organization to assist with expediting the completion of the TMDL process and to provide a necessary component of adequate CSO control, the data should meet the minimum data requirements imposed by DEP for listing waters as impaired under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act.

In order for its work product to be credible and to contribute significantly to watershed improvement in the County, the organization must be interdisciplinary by design and developed with strategic intent. The organization will require a mix of field, laboratory and design abilities and should have access, if need arises, to legal counsel. Consistent funding source(s) will allow the development of strategic, though comprehensive, databases that can be updated as needed and expanded to encompass as much as possible of the County’s river-stream-creek network. There must be a professional staff of one or more members who can create and utilize geographical information systems and probabilistic sampling designs to choose sampling sites, supervise the sampling effort of volunteers, analyze the samples, and maintain adequate records of data collection.

Whatever use regulatory authorities may make of data generated by the proposed watershed organization, it is above all important that the database created be made available in a comprehensible format to the public at large. This would include a webpage to display the data as soon as it is quality assured as well as periodic press releases and reports distributed to local news media indicating the results of sampling conducted and the conclusions that might be drawn from them. Studies have shown that public disclosure of environmental information can be a powerful aide and incentive to reduction or elimination of the sources of pollution.

The composition of the Board of Directors (or other oversight panel) of the organization (which, ideally, should be a non-profit corporation) will be particularly important in helping to establish the credibility of the organization and the information it offers to the public and, in doing so, convince potential funding sources that their money will be well spent. The Board must, for example, represent the diversity of community, corporate, and governmental interests that have a stake in water quality improvement. In all events, Board members must share the view that attainment of water quality standards in the County must go hand-in-hand with economic development if the region is to achieve its potential as an attractive, enjoyable, and safe place to live and visit.