PWSA’s Sewer System Renewal Project: Squirrel Hill

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) traces its roots to 1802 when the city established its first documented public water system for a municipality of about 1,600 people.

Today, PWSA provides clean drinking water and other water services to approximately 83,000 customers, maintaining more than 25,000 catch basins and 1,200 miles of sewer pipes. The pipes are 60-70 years old, on average, with some parts of the system topping the century mark.

Keeping up with breaks, leaks and loss of service can seem like a never-ending task, especially in bad weather. For example, during a three-day, below-zero cold snap in mid-February, PWSA crews responded to water main breaks on Murdoch Street near Forbes Avenue, Lilac Street in Greenfield, and in two other city neighborhoods.

“If a bridge is too weak for heavy traffic or there’s a pothole in the road, the public sees it, but [PWSA] handles the equivalent of two or three bridge failures that are hidden underground every day,” says Brendan Schubert, PWSA’s Manager of External Affairs.

“When you get a water main break, it could affect one person to multiple hundreds of residents — water is shut off, sometimes a business or a restaurant has to close,” Schubert noted. “Our customers expect clean, safe drinking water. When the system is broken and we can’t provide that, it runs counter to our mission.”

Sewer Project Snapshot
Crumbling pipes also lead to sewer back-ups, flooding and property damage. Just ask residents of block-long Valmont Street. PWSA found that the street’s existing combination sewer had partially collapsed and an attempt to line the sewer, instead of replacing it, failed.

To address the problem, PWSA embarked last June on a major sewer separation project on Valmont and nearby Northumberland Street as well as Aylesboro and Murray Avenues.

PWSA is incrementally separating stormwater from sewer pipes at locations across the city, with site selection determined in part by the age of the infrastructure in a given area and the impact of the work on system functionality.

Pittsburgh City Councilman Dan Gilman got the ball rolling on Valmont when he sent a list of eight problem areas to PWSA Interim Director James Good in January 2013, requesting faceto-face meetings between affected residents and PWSA. A community meeting was convened in May 2014 to prepare residents for the imminent “carnage”, as Valmont resident Barry Fulks characterized it, and the project is ongoing.

In an email last fall to Councilman Gilman, Fulks took issue with the project’s “relentless noise and dust, the excavation and other work that cause our entire house to vibrate alarmingly, the obligatory long-distance parking, etc.”, and he noted that in the midst of the construction, a heavy August rainstorm clogged sewer grates at the base of his street; a cruel irony, he noted, given that the project aims to alleviate flooding.

According to PWSA, major construction on Valmont lasted 37 weeks, with the contractor “demobilizing” on February 12. During excavation and pipe installation a six-person crew was usually onsite, with another crew completing restoration work as needed. At the same time, another crew worked on Murray and Northumberland. In addition, five PWSA engineers and designers mapped out the project, while three managers from PWSA and Chester Engineers directed construction.

Some facts and figures show the scope of the project: The combination sewer on Northumberland was installed at a depth of roughly 18 feet and is 79 feet long, with a new storm sewer placed 8-11 feet underground. The sanitary and storm sewers at Valmont and Aylesboro run 722 feet and 770 feet, respectively, with another 281 feet of storm sewer still to be installed under a new contract. On top of that, nearly 800 feet of sewer “laterals” —private line that carry drainage from a private property to a public sewer — were also installed.

During the first week of March, PWSA was scheduled to complete some catch basin work at the intersection of Valmont and Aylesboro, with a final course of asphalt paving on Valmont set for spring, along with installation of a remaining storm sewer on Aylesboro.

Even as work winds down around Valmont, PWSA is gearing up for a similar effort around Fair Oaks Street. Originally scheduled to begin last November, the Fair Oaks project is being rebid as part of a larger sewer improvement project and is expected to start this summer, lasting 4-5 months, weather permitting. A sanitary sewer line will be installed from the intersection of Beeler Street and Wilkins Avenue to a little bit east of the intersection of Fair Oaks and Inverness Avenue.

That project is budgeted at $590,000, according to a PWSA report on capital improvement projects for 2014-2018. Another nearly $2 million is earmarked for eight more pipe replacement projects over the same period in other parts of Squirrel Hill (see box for locations). SHM

about SHUC

Preserving, Improving, and Celebrating the Quality of Life in Squirrel Hill

For over fifty years, the Coalition has been an active and important link in the community. It has served as a sounding board for new ideas, as well as a “watchdog” in the areas of public safety, education, residential quality, the business district, and parks and open space. With its focus on the quality of life in the 14th Ward, SHUC continues to monitor activities and future developments in the community through a range of standing committees.


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