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Public beaches in Pittsburgh? One official says maybe one day

Matthew Santoni
| Friday, July 21, 2017, 10:18 a.m.
Sarah Quesen, 44, of Squirrel Hill (foreground) swims with a friend in the Allegheny River near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Tribune-Review
Sarah Quesen, 44, of Squirrel Hill (foreground) swims with a friend in the Allegheny River near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Officials in Paris are touting their city's cleaned-up waters with the opening this week of public swimming and wading pools along one of its former industrial canals.

But in Pittsburgh, officials say consistently safe and healthy swimming in the three rivers remains a long-term goal because sewage overflows still taint the water after many rainstorms.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo on Monday opened a trio of swimming pools along the Bassin de la Villette that are enclosed for children, waders and lap swimmers, but fed by basin water that is minimally filtered to keep out debris. The French capital had been working for decades to curb industrial runoff and stop its sewers from overflowing into rivers and canals during heavy rains.

Pittsburgh is much earlier in its efforts along similar lines, and can look to Paris or Boston for long-term goals, said Vivien Li, president and CEO of Riverlife, the nonprofit working to restore and promote Pittsburgh's waterfronts.

“My issue is that the water quality is not the type that would be swimmable,” Li said. “The ultimate goal is to get the water swimmable.”

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority is under a 2009 federal mandate to improve water quality by 2024, and though it's possible the government will grant ALCOSAN an extension, Li said the goal line was close enough to start planning things like river-fed pools or public beaches for when the water has improved. Such projects could be public undertakings or suggested to private developers working on riverfront construction around the city.

“It's not that far from now; it might be time to start thinking about those kinds of amenities,” Li said.

At Li's previous job in Boston, cleanup efforts began about 20 years ago to restore the Charles River and reopen public beaches, and the city has mostly completed its federal mandates. Now Massachusetts requires regular testing of public beaches for bacteria, and color-coded flags tell bathers when it's safest, she said.

Pittsburgh Public Safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said there are no laws against swimming in the Allegheny, Monongahela or Ohio, and most days one can spot plenty of people boating, rowing, fishing, tubing or paddleboarding.

ALCOSAN posts “SOAK,” or Sewer Overflow Advisory Key updates on its website when recent rains have flushed sewage from combined storm and sanitary sewers into the water, to warn rivergoers when sewage-fed bacteria levels are too high for human contact.

Spokeswoman Jeanne Clark said ALCOSAN warns against any river contact — swimming, boating or fishing — during active combined sewer overflows. For 48 hours after overflows have stopped, the agency says boating and paddling should be safe as long as there's no direct contact with the water; once the 48 hours have gone by without any additional overflow, the system is in “dry weather operation” and all river activities should be safe from sewage-related bacteria.

“People still need to recognize it's still a natural body of water, affected by animals, so it's never going to be like a swimming pool,” said Clark, who noted she'd learned to swim farther up the Allegheny River but still always keeps her head above the water.

Sarah Quesen, 44, a statistics professor from Squirrel Hill, swims on the open rivers when the water quality and currents are safe enough. She runs a website and Twitter account offering advice and water-condition reports for others experienced enough to practice swimming in the three rivers. Between heavy rains dumping sewage and fast currents, she said there have been very few days good for swimming this summer.

“When there is no (combined sewer overflow) warning, you will see boaters enjoying the rivers — people tubing, skiing, etc. And people swimming,” Quesen said. “Rivers are not like lakes; it is never the same water twice. Once you have checked river conditions, if you are swimming upstream from industrial areas, the water should be fine.”

Swimmers should avoid locks and dams, marinas with boat traffic and areas around Downtown when events or games attract more traffic and inebriated boaters, she said. Bright swimming caps and even a kayak escort help.

As for a public swimming pool like Paris, she preferred the open water.

“What I love about open-water swimming is the ‘open' part of it — I don't want to be confined,” Quesen said.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MSantoni.

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