Free water dries up for city of Pittsburgh, zoo, Phipps

September 23, 2018
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Kids swim in the Highland Swimming Pool in Highland Park.

Pittsburgh government has never paid a water bill, but that’s about to change.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is set to begin a “robust” meter replacement campaign that will include all city offices and facilities for the first time, plus related public attractions such as the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium and Phipps Conservancy.

PWSA Executive Director Robert Weimar said the authority plans to replace 6,000 water meters each year. He couldn’t give a time frame for when Pittsburgh would start receiving bills but said they’re coming in the future.

“Everybody is going to get metered. Everybody is going to get a bill,” Weimar said in a recent interview. “The city is going to have to start paying for water. We’re going to get a water bill, too. We will pay the water bill for this building.”

PWSA pays for water used at its Penn Avenue headquarters through its rent, Weimar said.

Pittsburgh officials did not return calls for comment.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale last year estimated that PWSA pumps about 600 million gallons of water per year into 400 city-owned properties, including City Hall, swimming pools, parks and leaky Lake Elizabeth at Allegheny Commons Park on the North Side. He estimated that the city water bill in 2017 would have totaled $6.8 million.

DePasquale said PWSA is unsure of exactly how much water it provides the city because 90 percent of city-owned properties aren’t metered.

Other unmetered sites include the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium in Highland Park and Phipps Conservatory in Oakland.

Zoo spokeswoman Tracy Gray declined comment. Phipps did not return a call requesting comment.

The free water is among a long list of chronic problems that have plagued PWSA for decades and prompted state lawmakers this year to place the authority under PUC oversight.

PWSA is now addressing PUC questions and amping up its capital improvement program to fix leaking pipes and outdated infrastructure, some of which that dates back more than 100 years.

Among the PUC questions are PWSA’s annual $7.1 million payment to the city for lease of the water system, which the city owns; the $3 million to $5 million PWSA pays Alcosan each year for delinquent sewer bills; and a $4.8 million subsidy PWSA pays each year to Pennsylvania American Water, which supplies residents in Pittsburgh’s South Hills.

Alcosan’s monthly sewage treatment charges are attached to PWSA bills, and PWSA is responsible for collections and delinquencies under an agreement dating to the 1950s. Pittsburgh City Council in 1973 agreed to subsidize the difference between PWSA’s rates and higher rates charged by Pennsylvania American Water so all city residents pay the same rates.

Weimar said PWSA is negotiating a new agreement with the city that addresses its annual payment. He said it has discussed the Alcosan delinquencies with the PUC and is waiting for the commission for advice on how to address that. He said PWSA would argue that the South Hills subsidy should end.

“What the PUC has said to us is you should pay for the services that you get,” Weimar said. “I think everyone questions the validity of having one side of the city compensate the other for water service. People ought to pay for what services they get. That’s going to be our position.”

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