Sometimes, it's easy to tell when a river's water quality has been compromised -- such as when, in 2005, a train carrying toxic gas derailed in East Deer Township and two of its cars ended up in the Allegheny. Other times, though, contamination can be more subtle -- such as when the sewers overflow during a storm.
And that poses a problem for people who draw water from the river downstream. Water agencies may not find out about contamination until it has already been sucked in through the intake pipes, tainting drinking-water supplies.
If a river is contaminated, "it is conceivable that people downstream would never be notified, or at best, depending on where they are downstream, [find out in] 20 minutes," says Emily Buka, executive director of the Riverside Center for Innovation, an economic-development center.
"Everybody has some monitoring equipment," Buka says, "but it's not a network."
Buka and others hope to change that by creating the River Alert Information Network (RAIN). The network would install sensors at 11 or more sites in southwestern Pennsylvania, so that officials could detect everything from industrial spills to acid rain runoff.
RAIN estimates that the cost of equipment for the network would be approximately $1.5 million. Buka says the operating costs per year would be about $125,000. RAIN has received some seed grants, but a brochure from the organization states that "funding will be necessitated" from federal, state and local agencies.
RAIN, which formed about a year ago, is in the process of educating the public and seeking sources of funding. "We are fund-raising to, first of all, acquire the equipment we need," Buka says.
RAIN is a voluntary partnership of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, California University of Pennsylvania and 33 water agencies, including the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. Buka's group is among the partnership's non-voting members.
The goal of RAIN is to provide tributaries of the Ohio with the same kind of coverage that it receives from the interstate Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission.
Buka says that tributaries, like the Monongahela or Youghiogheny, "are not afforded the same support that the Ohio is. ... Right now, I won't say there's no system" to detect and notify people of contamination. But there's no established method for tracking or sharing information, either.
Under the new network, though, "The minute any system is degraded, there will be online alarms that will go off." The system would automatically notify downstream water systems, so they can close intake valves.
Buka's group estimates that 1.7 million southwestern Pennsylvania residents rely on the Mon, the Ohio, the Allegheny or the Yough for drinking water.
Stanley States, Pittsburgh's water-quality manager, says that while larger rivers are better monitored than they used to be, "The problem is now with the smaller rivers. It's not that it's an imminent risk, but the more monitoring, the better idea everybody has what's in the water and what kind of treatment it needs."
Buka also points out that rivers don't follow municipal boundaries -- and that big cities are downstream of much smaller municipalities that may not be equipped to handle a big spill or other threat.
"The Monongahela starts down in West Virginia," she says. "There are some intakes down there that only have 500 taps." In many of those communities, she says, water-quality officials may "go home for lunch and maybe don't work on the weekends, yet they are responsible for the health and safety of the drinking water."
RAIN advocates are promoting the program through a series of public events. The next is scheduled for 2 p.m., Sept. 19, when officials will tout the plan at the River Forest Country Club in Freeport. The show comes to Pittsburgh on Oct. 10, at the Riverside Center for Innovation (700 River Ave., North Side). For more information, visit http://3rain.org.