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Frequent sewer overflows from wet weather dampen Pittsburgh summer

Elena Infante is tired of raw sewage polluting her training regimen.

Sewer overflows into rivers and streams, brought on by heavy spring and summer rains, have forced Infante and others preparing for next month’s Pittsburgh Triathlon to train indoors for the race’s swimming portion.

During sewer overflows, which can carry raw sewage and garbage into the rivers, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority issues an alert advising river users to limit contact with the water.

“Anytime there is a rain event, there is a surge in bacteria in the rivers,” said LuAnn Brink, chief epidemiologist at the Allegheny County Health Department. “We all know it’s out there.”

Alcosan issued 31 alerts since May 1, including three in one day, records show.

The public alerts coincide with boating season, which typically begins in May and ends in late October, Alcosan spokeswoman Jeanne Clark said. The overflow advisories pertain to all waterways in Alcosan’s service area, which includes sections of the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers in Allegheny County, not a specific set of rivers or streams, Clark said.

Alcosan has started a $2 billion federally mandated sewer overhaul to keep sewage out of waterways, but it will take years to separate storm and sanitary sewer systems.

Alcosan recommends limiting contact with river water for 24 to 48 hours after an overflow stops. Its most recent alert was issued Wednesday.

It has been nearly a month since the water has been safe enough to swim in, according to Alcosan’s records.

Infante, 29, of Bloomfield said she prefers to train in the Allegheny River with a group of other triathletes, but “we’ve barely been able to swim (outside) at all this year because of the overflows.”

Tuesday was the first time in three weeks that Kayak Pittsburgh rented boats at its North Shore location near Clemente Bridge because of choppy currents and sewer overflows, manager Vanessa Bashur said.

Wet weather forced it to suspend boat rentals Wednesday. Kayak Pittsburgh is managed by South Side-based nonprofit Venture Outdoors. An extended closure “definitely has an effect” on the company’s bottom line, Bashur said.

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She halted kayak rentals for two-and-a-half weeks from late May to early June last summer. “We’re always struggling with the weather,” Bashur said.

Swallowing water containing bacteria puts people at risk for vomiting, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems, Brink said.

“Thankfully, we’re not noticing any surge in illness” affecting people out on the water despite the recent spike in sewer overflows, she said.

Pittsburgh Triathlon organizers were under fire last year for going forward with the swimming portion of the race despite a sewer overflow in the Allegheny River hours before the event. At least one competitor who completed the 1,500-meter swim was treated in a hospital for diarrhea and vomiting.

Race organizers declined to comment for this story.

Last month was the eighth-wettest June in Pittsburgh since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1871. The city recorded 7.34 inches of rain, 3.04 inches above the 30-year average, said Rihaan Gangat, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

It takes as little as 0.1 inch of rain to cause a sewer overflow, Clark said. Overflows don’t affect the drinking water supply, she said, because treatment plants remove bacteria and other impurities.

Organizers of the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta canceled all boat races last weekend, a first in the event’s 38-year history, because of swift currents and debris.

Sewer overflows were “not part of our decision,” said John Bonassi, chairman of the regatta’s executive board. At least one regatta event, the Anything That Floats competition, routinely puts competitors in the water.

Infante said she has been in city pools for much of the summer to prepare for the Aug. 7-9 triathlon at Point State Park.

“You get the laps in, but it doesn’t prepare you for being in an open body of water,” said Infante, who has competed in 13 triathlons.

Her time in the swimming portion of a triathlon last month in Ohio was “a lot slower” than typical. She blamed the change in training locations.

“That was kind of a bummer,” she said.


This article was written by Tony Raap from The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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