By Alison De Luise, Senior Advisor

The Water Center at Penn

September 3, 2019

Industry along the Monongahela RiverImage Credit: Center for Land Use Interpretation

In late 2018, the Heinz Endowment invited the Water Center at Penn (WCP) out to Southwest Pennsylvania to undertake a high-level study exploring the challenges and opportunities for water resource management in the Three Rivers region.  This region, named for the important presence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, which meet in the center of Pittsburgh, is blessed with a wealth of water. This wealth informs the region’s history, industrial legacy, economy, culture, and quality of life. 

But WCP’s now completed Phase 1 study ‘Accelerating Transformational Change in Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers1’ recognizes that Pittsburgh’s wealth of water also presents a unique set of challenges for the region including: sewer overflows, flooding, indus­trial and agricultural pollutants, emerging contaminants, aging infrastructure, poorly coordinat­ed land use, and an upstream resource boom.

Interviews with over 50 stakeholder organizations and an in-depth literature review revealed that some progress has been made across the watersheds to identify and address some of these issues – the region is on the cusp of unprecedented invest­ment in both gray and green infrastructure in response to a federal consent decree. But the consensus from all interviews was that this will only partially address the list of evolving and interconnected challenges. Changing climate will strain aging infrastructure, despite investments. Growth in the region and associated land use changes will impact water quality, quantity and affordability. These challenges affect populations differently across urban and rural watersheds, often with inequitable outcomes based on socioeconomic disparities.

Increasingly regular flood events Image Credit: Pennsylvania Highways

WCP’s report concluded that only through taking a systematic and integrated approach can the current water system chal­lenges in Southwest Pennsylvania be effectively and efficiently addressed, with full realization of the many benefits the Three Rivers have to offer.   While an effective response will require cooperation and trust across boundaries – geographical, jurisdictional, political, social and cultural – the region does not appear ready to accommodate the emergence of a new or re-organized regional entity with overall regulatory or policy control over water resource issues. There is indeed a need for such a regionally focused entity to lead creation and implemen­tation of an integrated water strategy. However, this must remain, a long-term objective which guides the short to medium term solutions..

The region has a rich legacy of local governance often cited as a source of political inertia and a hindrance to action. WCP believes the opportunity comes not from obliterating these boundaries in favor of unresponsive technocracy, but in leveraging local energies, especially in underserved communities, into local but scalable solutions with support from regional expertise and resources. WCP contends that this moment provides a unique opportunity to move be­yond reactivity to a proactive, long term view of water and land use throughout the three-rivers watersheds.

WCP has now begun work on a second phase of this project, again generously supported by the Heinz Endowment.  This phase is about development and initial implementation of a future roadmap for water resource management in the region. WCP’s effort, undertaken in strong partnership with locally based organizations, aims to support the generation of the necessary political will for action by expanding the tent from the smaller group of highly sophisticated stakeholders deeply engaged in the current challenges, to engage the larger community – from the urban core to rural stakeholders.  WCP’s second phase of work builds upon the many successful local initiatives also under way, with the idea that, properly nurtured, they can be leveraged and expanded across the region.

One Water Framework from the US Water Alliance

WCP is directing its energies into four interconnected components over the next two years:

  • The creation of a ‘Three Rivers Watershed Action Network’ – linking up networks and better connecting local initiatives, leveraging successes and lessons learned and amplifying the political importance of this local work;
  • The development of a ‘Three Rivers Watershed Leadership Incubator’ – identifying, developing, and equipping the next generation of regional water leaders among the various grass roots organizations working in the region, in effect creating a Water and Watersheds Incubator focused not merely on conveying technical informa­tion, but building the political and leadership skills necessary for long-term impact;
  • Development assistance for a robust watershed-wide water data collec­tion, monitoring, and communication framework; and
  • Provision of strategic technical and financial assistance and support to a number of small towns and municipalities within the Three Rivers region that are currently suffering from insuf­ficient capacity to deliver the water services for which they are responsible.

Mainstreamed throughout this entire effort, as well as elevated within particular components are equity considerations including ensuring efforts to move the needle on reducing the disproportionate negative burdens borne by poorer communities such as flooding and basement backups.  WCP efforts will also focus on increasing the voice of marginalized communities in water related issues.

WCP’s goal is to support the Three Rivers region in becoming better positioned to address current and future water challenges and to develop a possible model for undertaking truly integrated water resource management, consistent with the US Water Alliance’s One Water Approach.



Alison applies 15 years of international development policy, program and partnership experience towards urban sustainability challenges.  Completing a Master in Environmental Management at Duke University, her research focused on how cities can harness green stormwater infrastructure investments to maximize delivery of other social, environmental and economic co-benefits. At WCP, Alison is developing holistic strategies to address interconnected water challenges faced by Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers communities.