A flush and boil water advisory affecting 100,000 Pittsburghers earlier this month, delays in lead test results and billing snafus have led Mayor Bill Peduto to call for an advisory panel to mull the idea of restructuring the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.
The mayor said creating the panel is a matter of restoring trust with the public. He ordered an audit of the PWSA’s lead testing process — from sending the test kits to consumers, to providing them with results in a timely manner.
“The biggest thing that people worry about is uncertainty," Peduto said. "They don't know. And so they want to be able to have some certainty about whether or not the water that they're drinking is dangerous."
According to the mayor, the water leaving the plant meets environmental criteria, but then it goes through underground pipes. Some of those pipes are made of lead, and then through laterals — the pipes from the street into houses — some of which are also made of lead.
“We don't know where the lead pipes are because we have a system that was built 100 years ago without the information ever being attributed to where the pipes are and in some cases the pipes have been moved and there's isn't even an update to that,” Peduto said.
Not knowing where they are complicates fixing the problem, he said, because all main lines have to be tested in order to have accurate and updated data.
Once the lead pipes are found and removed, he said a capital improvement program is needed which could take up to 10 years.
"You can’t just rip the entire system out and put in a new system in a year or two," Peduto said.
The money needed to pay for the replacements could be crucial to restructuring PWSA, he said. The PWSA has $1 billion in debt, and he said the authority doesn’t have the ability to raise rates high enough “without driving people out of the city.”
“We cannot solve this problem with the status quo," Peduto said. "We have to find a new approach."
Peduto said in the next few weeks he hopes to hire a consultant to make restructuring recommendations, which might involve a public-private partnership.
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner urged the mayor to promise not to privatize the water system.
“I promise not to privatize water,” the mayor said, “we don’t know what the cost of water will be in the future. It could be more valuable than gold.”
The water might not be gold, but it could mean lots of dollars.
“We can produce triple the amount of the water out of our plant that we’re producing now," Peduto said. "But under state law, the city government can’t sell it. But if we create a new organization (private-public entity) that has the ability to do so, we have a new source of revenue to be able to fix the problems that our system has.”
Peduto said he hopes to have the recommendations from the consultant in a few months followed by public discussion.
He said the goal is to have a water system that is safe, public and sustainable.
"And I can assure you, it’s not under the structure we have today," he said.