Pitt’s Emily Elliott grew up near the Chesapeake Bay, which she said helped instill a respect for water – what it provides for people, the ecosystems it sustains and how it relies on the stewardship of those who live near it.
Despite Pittsburgh’s three mighty rivers, Elliott says residents rarely share that same kind of connection to our region’s water. That’s something that she and the Pittsburgh Collaboratory for Water Research want to change.
“We’re a very water-rich region – we have all of these rivers and streams and tributaries – but people don’t have a really strong connection to them in general,” said Elliott, a professor at the Kenneth P. Dietrich School. of Arts and Sciences and director of the collaboratory. “There’s no rallying cry to save the Ohio, because it was and still is one of the most polluted water bodies in the US.”
As one step toward that goal, last month the collaborator was named the host of the Southwest Pennsylvania Water Network, an autonomous group of local leaders working to improve the region’s water quality.
The Pittsburgh Water Collaboratory came together in 2017 as Elliott and other Pitt faculty members in the Department of Geology and Environmental Science saw that they could make a bigger impact on the region’s water by working together rather than by continuing one-off individual research efforts.
“We were having these big conversations around green infrastructure and stormwater management and flooding,” said Elliott. “We realized that we need to join together to be a stronger voice for the region and to make Pitt a part of the conversation.”
Since then, the collaborator has grown to more than 350 members and brought in more than $ 6 million in federal funding, catalyzing the beginnings of new research projects across the region. Supported by the Heinz Endowment since 2018, they’ve also earned an award from ARIS (Advancing Research Impact in Society) recognizing the collaborative’s efforts to benefit the public broader.
While the collaboratory is focused specifically on sparking partnerships between academic researchers and the community, the SWPA Water Network has a broader mandate to advance the region’s sustainability and create opportunities for water leaders to connect. The two have evolved alongside each other with different but complementary goals.
The network formed over the last three years through conversations facilitated by the Water Center at Penn with funding from the Heinz Endowment. After an extensive selection process, network members voted to make the Pittsburgh Water Collaboratory the host, functioning as the official employer for network staff and supporting the network’s funding and operations alongside Pitt’s Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT) and the Western PA Regional Data Center.
“Building relationships at this network level is going to be really important for groups to get more access to resources and funding,” said Megan Guy, outreach coordinator and data analyst for the Pittsburgh Water Collaboratory. “We’re in the process of trust-building and relationship-building.”
For the collaboratory, the first step of building trust with the region’s communities was to learn what residents felt researchers needed to investigate about the region’s water. That came in the form of community meetings, leading to three community consensus reports that are informing the research projects that are now taking shape.
One concern they heard over and over: the water in residents’ homes. “If you own a house in Pittsburgh, it’d be really unusual if you didn’t have a wet basement,” Elliott said.
Researchers have a grasp on how the water gets in – it’s likely a result of stormwater management and aging infrastructure – but what’s less well-understood is how it affects residents ’health. That’s a particular concern because the water in basements is often sewage, creating the potential for exposure to pathogens like Legionella.
The team, including Swanson School of Engineering Assistant Professor Sarah Haig, is piloting a new research project this summer to determine where the water in residents ’basements is coming from, as well as what might be in it. It’s just one example of how the collaboration is connecting the concerns of residents to researchers’ agendas. Along with numerous other research projects, collaborative members are also monitoring the water impacts of the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse and assessing baseline water quality in the three rivers, including after a recent train derailment in Harmar.
By bringing together local groups of residents, water organizations and academics with similar concerns – and starting projects to improve the region’s water resources – the members of the collaborative hope to kickstart a virtuous cycle of better water quality and a stronger connection between the region’s residents and its rivers.
“If you have a piece of water that you have a stake in, that you have touched or used, it’s more likely you’ll want to protect it,” said Guy. “If we can do that on a small level, it can make big, big waves.”
– Patrick Monahan, photography by Tom Altany