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City needs to face its water woes

| Sunday, March 25, 2007

Pittsburgh has this problem, too, and it stinks. The great city of London dumps raw sewage into its famous river, the Thames.

This outrage to civil society happens every time the British capital gets too much rainfall. Gutters flow with ankle-deep "rivers," pedestrians have to jump over, sewers back up and the flush-aways of kitchen, bathroom and too many industries pour out into the storied waterway that flows under Tower Bridge to the sea.

It's revolting. But it happens just like that in Allegheny County. And most citizens don't realize, or prefer not to think about it, here or there.

Something else is in common. Big money is going to have to be spent in both watersheds.

For London, the bill came in last week. Two billion pounds. Equalling $3.9 billion-odd (probably an underestimate). Or about 10 times the cost for our subway extension now burrowing under the Allegheny.

The Brits, however, are going to get a heroic dig for their money.

Imagine a hole in the ground 20 miles long, more than seven yards wide, and at its deepest about 250 feet below the river it's meant to save.

That's the Tideway Tunnel, designed to divert 32 million cubic meters of sewage overflows per year right around the city from west to east. All it takes in London sometimes is an incredible two millimeters of rain -- that little, according to Bloomberg News -- and you don't want to go boating on the Thames. The city's storm sewers go back in part to the 1800s, a reaction to the "Great Stink" experienced in the Industrial Revolution.

The same, on a different scale, goes for Pittsburgh. Municipalities among these rainy hills and flood-prone valleys feed into Alcosan, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority. Take a tour of its treatment plant by the Ohio River. You'll hear about billions in storm sewer requirements under federal law right now. But not yet realistically budgeted.

Here's a bright side. The work when it comes will bring a bonanza to design, digging, construction and materials firms. And jobs a-plenty.

Most Londoners "would be shocked," said an environmental official, to learn that the Thames yearly receives sewage that could fill 12,800 Olympic swimming pools. It kills fish, imperils health and dims the tourist appeal of the river sung by Shakespeare and Dickens. Two barges in London pump up 30 tons of oxygen a day into the Thames to give it "life."

When the new tunnel is completed -- a 13-year project -- it will be the largest undertaking of its type in British public works history and should serve London for 100 years.

But it won't come cheap to the millions who inhabit in the place. A gradual rise in customer water bills should peak in 2019 at a cumulative hike of 37 pounds a year, say $70 at today's rates. That's about 13 percent. But modern life can't treat rivers like sewers. London's facing it. When will Pittsburgh?

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