At the 16th Annual 3 Rivers Wet Weather Sewer Conference, hundreds of engineers, municipal leaders, and environmental advocates gathered to talk about Pittsburgh’s regional sewer problem.

In the keynote address Dennis Yablonsky, of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, laid out why it’s important to take interest. Pittsburgh is working hard to attract young, talented people to the region and these people prioritize quality of life over pretty much everything else, he said. Pittsburgh’s rivers are a big part of quality of life here, but when it rains hard the region’s combined sewers overflow into the rivers, dumping raw sewage and storm water. “When it rains in this region,” Yablonsky said, “it’s like a third world country.” That doesn’t fit with the future Pittsburgh envisions.

There’s another reason  the sewer question is en vogue in the Pittsburgh region now. Caren Glotfelty, who co-chairs the Sewer Regionalization Implementation Committee, said for one, the region is facing legal sanctions, and two, the feds are being nice. For now.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been invoking the Clean Water Act to get sewer systems around the U.S. to modernize and eliminate overflows into rivers and streams. Pittsburgh is basically breaking the law by continuing to use its rivers as a backup for when the treatment plant can’t handle the load, and the EPA wants to put a stop to it. But the EPA is being relatively flexible. After calling one plan submitted by the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) deficient, it allowed ALCOSAN more time to develop an amended plan that would incorporate a more regional approach with more green infrastructure.

Terrified of the potential price --$3.6 billion -- of getting the sewer system up to snuff, the 83 municipalities that make up the regional ALCOSAN network are working together for what might be the first time. They’re preparing, some members with more zeal than others, to hand over the management of trunk sewers to ALCOSAN, so the authority can streamline services across the system. In the next year, municipalities will start to meet with ALCOSAN representatives to discuss the terms of their particular handover.

But Anthony Igwe, with Wade-Trim, an engineering and planning company, said even as the sewer system centralizes more, that won’t be enough, and municipalities have their work to do. He said there are dozens of watersheds in Allegheny County and few streams that meet water quality standards. To be exact, he said of the 73 streams examined, only 3 comply. And he said even if all the sewage is diverted away from those streams, they still won’t meet water quality standards because of other pollution sources. Igwe urged municipalities to start planning ahead, with data collection and remediation plans, so that when the sewer question is resolved they’re ahead of the curve.

Meanwhile, the conference continues Thursday at the Monroeville Convention Center.