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Pittsburgh’s only open-air reservoir might be more trouble than it’s worth

Bob Bauder
webHighlandParkFILEjpg
Steven Adams | Tribune-Review
File photo - The Entry Garden and reservoir at Highland Park in Pittsburgh, Saturday, August 29, 2015.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority doesn't need water from the open-air reservoir in Highland Park that triggered a nearly two-day boil order, but it has kept it open nonetheless, pleasing visitors who enjoy running and walking by the open water.

Robert Weimar, PWSA's interim director of engineering, said the authority plans to eliminate the Highland Park No. 1 Reservoir because of state Department of Environmental Protection concerns about its ability to meet regulations and because PWSA has more than enough storage capacity.

“It becomes more of an artifact of public use than water supply,” Weimar said. “What we would probably end up doing is bleeding a little bit of water into it and a little bit of water out of it to keep it fresh.”

PWSA customers use 70 million gallons of water per day, on average, and the authority has capacity to store about 480 million gallons in six reservoirs and eight tanks across the city and surrounding area, PWSA spokesman Will Pickering said.

David Hance, an architect and Highland Park resident who led a 10-year battle in the 1990s to preserve Highland Park No. 1 as an open reservoir, said he was shocked to hear PWSA is considering eliminating it. He said PWSA officials always maintained the reservoir was necessary.

“To hear now that they think they can run the city with that big of a change in the operations and design of the system is a shock,” said Hance, president of the Highland Park Community Development Corp. “That's a reversal.”

Highland No. 1, the city's only uncovered water source, can supply water to about 60 percent of Pittsburgh, but it has remained off-line two weeks after PWSA recorded fluctuating chlorine levels that prompted DEP to issue a boil water order impacting about 100,000 Pittsburgh residents.

Weimar said the authority is adding chlorine, a water disinfectant, in an attempt to get the 130 million gallon reservoir back in operation. It has not uncovered the reason for fluctuating readings. Weimar said PWSA must demonstrate consistent amounts of chlorine before DEP will let it use the reservoir.

City and PWSA officials have said they found no signs of giardia or other pathogens in the water.

Weimar said to eliminate Highland Park No. 1, PWSA would have to design and build a system that would cost as much as $20 million to pump water from nearby Highland Park No. 2 Reservoir, which is covered, into the Highland No. 1 distribution system.

Weimar said the new system would take about five years to complete and be subject to DEP approval.

“It is certainly one of the things we're looking at,” said Alex Thomson, who chairs the PWSA board of directors. “The short-term plan is to resolve the issues and get (the reservoir) back online.”

Built in 1879, the reservoir was central in the design of Highland Park and since has served as an attraction for tourists and residents who visit to run, bike or walk and to watch wildlife. People stroll daily around a walkway encompassing the 18-acre lake located at the main park entrance.

The reservoir is unique because it remains uncovered. As such, it is subject to an added layer of treatment and regulatory scrutiny.

A state law in the 1980s required the covering of all open drinking water reservoirs and prompted a public outcry and battle by residents to prevent Highland Park No. 1 from being covered.

At one point, then-PWSA Chairman Joe Preston, who later served as a Democratic state representative from East Liberty, said he offered to sell the reservoir to Highland Park Residents for $1.

“Originally we wanted to build tanks and close the reservoir,” he said. “People were against that. So we settled when we found out about the technology of the microfiltration plant.”

Regulatory agencies approved the project after PWSA built the plant, which pushes reservoir water through a series of tiny mesh filters to remove pathogens such as giardia. Pickering said the plant, which opened in 2002, cost about $30 million.

The plant was an engineering marvel at the time, and PWSA officials said it has been more effective than chlorine for disinfecting drinking water. Chlorine is added as a back-up disinfectant, Weimar said.

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or [email protected].

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