A wood-plank bridge crosses the Stonycreek River in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and leads to the lower boarding platform of the city’s incline. A red car on a steeply angled track whisks passengers 500 feet up a hillside. The short ride offers sweeping views of the city, and the quickest way to understand Johnstown’s sewer problem.
Like a lot of Pennsylvania cities, rain is a big problem in Johnstown. Nicknamed “Flood City,” the community of 19,000 is surrounded by steep hills and spread over a low-lying bowl of land at the confluence of two rivers; the Stonycreek and the Little Conemaugh join to form the Conemaugh.
Johnstown is most famous for the catastrophic flood that nearly wiped the city out in 1889. Now, it’s dealing with a different kind of flood; Johnstown is drowning in sewage. The city has six years left to fix the problem.
When it pours, stormwater overwhelms the sewer system, which means urine and excrement overflow from Dornick Point Wastewater Treatment Plant and into the Conemaugh River. It’s a river Johnstown would like to harness as a recreational asset, but something more foundational has to happen first: an overhaul of the sewer system.
It’s a painful, expensive necessity, said Monsignor Raymond Balta, a Catholic priest and board chairman of the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority, or JRA.
“There’s no glory in sanitary transmission and treatment,” he said. “You're not going to sit on a front porch and say, ‘Hey, Mike come over here and look at my lateral lines. I mean aren't they beautiful.’”
After procrastinating for 20 years, Johnstown is under strict order from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, to eliminate its sanitary sewer overflows. In 2010, Johnstown bit the bullet and started what is essentially a citywide makeover, rebuilding 98 miles of sewer lines that serve thousands of houses and businesses.
And that created a new problem: very angry residents.
Those 98 miles of sewer line are just the public lines. In order to really stop stormwater and groundwater from infiltrating the sewer system, homeowners have to replace the lateral lines running from their homes to the city’s lines.
Imagine your city is being torn up—cones everywhere, streets in various states of demolition or reconstruction—and then you suddenly have to invest some $4,000 in replacing your personal piece of the sewer system. Johnstown Regional Sewage, part of JRA, now offers a loan program to help homeowners manage those costs.
Bernie Krcha knew it wasn’t going to be fun, but he was pretty resigned to it.
“DEP said that they had to stop this sewerage going into the river because of the people downstream,” he said. “They use that water. OK I understand that. I wouldn't want to use somebody else's toilet water.”
The Dornick Point Wastewater Treatment Plant has a permit from DEP that allows them to discharge treated sewage into the river while they fix the underlying problem; the permit states those discharges are not expected to affect public water supplies.
Krcha is 86, and has seen how resilient Johnstown can be: he lived through two big floods, one in 1936 and one in 1977, and watched the city rebuild. He replaced his sewer lines a year ago. He said city officials have since come back to his house and questioned whether he did it properly.
“I just think the planning just is lousy,” he said. “They keep changing horses in the middle of the stream.”
Water Runs Downhill
Johnstown isn’t the only community in the midst of a major sewer overhaul.
While it’s the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority that owns and operates the Dornick Point Wastewater Treatment Plant, 20 separate municipalities send waste to the plant. When DEP ordered JRA to prevent sewage from being discharged into the river by 2023, JRA had to ask all of those communities to help make that possible.
“I’d always compared it to a funnel system,” said Balta. “We have 20 different jurisdictions pouring stuff into the top of the funnel and the EPA is fining us for what's coming out of the bottom.”
Southmont Borough is one of those communities, perched on a hill about 3 miles east of Johnstown. Borough Manager Richard Wargo said Southmont’s sewer project has been very different from Johnstown’s.
“All the communities in the area signed a consent order [with the DEP],” he said. “But not all the communities signed it the way we did.”
The estimated $12 million cost of Southmont’s sewer overhaul included replacing all of the community’s private lateral lines, saving homeowners significant cost. Wargo said they did some negotiating with DEP that allowed the community to obtain a state grant as well as a low-interest, 30-year loan from the revolving state fund, PennVest.
Since 2015, the borough has also doubled the sewer rate it charges its 950 residences and businesses. Wargo said communities across Pennsylvania will soon have to do the same; Johnstown and Southmont happened to go through it first.
“It's just something that had to be done...The important thing is get that water cleaned up,” said Wargo, who volunteers as the president of a watershed association. “You have you have to have good quality water to have a good quality of life. It's simple.”
But Southmont is working at a completely different scale than Johnstown. The borough had roughly 14 miles of public sewer lines to replace compared to Johnstown’s 98, and Southmont doesn’t have the same financial baggage carried by Johnstown.
The High Cost of Compliance
De-industrialization hit Johnstown hard, shrinking the city and its tax base. Under the state’s financial assistance program for distressed municipalities, Johnstown ran a deficit for 24 years, breaking even for the first time in 2016. The city has had little money to spend on the kinds of amenities that might attract newcomers, though Johnstown residents have worked hard to make their city livable. And then the sewer project came along, with its $165 million price tag.
Frustration at the sewer project, now moving into its seventh year, seethes at monthly city council meetings. At the August meeting there was confusion regarding a sinkhole likely created by the sewer project, a rundown of city finances that lasted two hours, and frequent spats between members of council and the mayor. Resident and former mayoral candidate John DeBartola used his five minutes of public comment to express disappointment.
“I got here at six o’clock from work. I stayed 'til nine o’clock and I saw dysfunction,” he said when the public comment period began at 10:30 p.m. In that time, DeBartola said he’d already gone to dinner and come back to the meeting. “No talking about job creation, no talking about saving our town. I’m embarrassed. I went to dinner because I had to have a break from you people.”
Johnstown Mayor Frank Janakovic said he understands why people are frustrated, but that the city must keep pressing forward on the sewer project or face unaffordable fines from DEP.
“The can's been kicked down the road for too long,” he said. “And if some of these things were done, if we could always change the past that would be great but we can't...and I can assure you we're trying to do our best to to please all entities and do the job right.”
Janakovic’s office is right next to City Hall; hanging on the building’s front door is a sign that reads “Alive And Well & Open For Business In Downtown Johnstown.”
But the sewer project makes attracting new companies a lot harder, said City Manager Arch Liston.
“They're going to look at us and they're going to say, ‘Your costs are too high, your debt is too high, your pension liability is too high.’”
Johnstown has no financial wiggle room: it’s maxed out its loans and grants. Aside from restructuring the debt, the only way to pay for the sewer project is to raise rates. In a city where most residents make just north of $24,000 a year, Liston said they can’t handle another rate increase.
“It's creating a substantial financial burden that in 10 years could create a financial collapse of the city.”
By 2023, Johnstown will be done with its sewer project, a new, state-of-the-art system thrumming along beneath the ground. Liston thinks Johnstown will make it through, but said he hopes the city’s sewer trouble will change how officials approach infrastructure maintenance and improvement.
“We have to replace systems when they need to be replaced,” he said. “Not let it get to the end of the day and you could potentially break your community.”