History

Love Your Park: Celebrate the Green Spaces Protecting Your Water

From the very beginning, the Fairmount Park system has been an important tool for protecting Philadelphia’s rivers and streams, and to read the history of our park system is to read a story of city planners striving to create natural buffers to protect rivers and streams from industry and development.

Rather than evolving away from that original purpose, our parks are today actually becoming more and more important for protecting the city’s seven watersheds.

As Philadelphians gather for Love Your Park Week—a celebration of our green spaces involving more than 80 volunteer service days and 40-plus special events in parks across Philadelphia from May 13-21—many of them will be tending to Parks and Recreation facilities that now feature special green tools created through the Green City, Clean Waters program.

The Philadelphia Water Department’s partnership with Parks and Recreation has been essential in achieving the ambitious goals of Green City, Clean Waters: drastically reducing pollution from runoff and sewer overflows through the creation of green infrastructure systems that soak up water from storms while creating new green spaces in our neighborhoods.

In 2016, Philadelphia celebrated the program’s fifth year and the fact that we’re exceeding greening and water quality targets set back when PWD proposed the nation’s first large-scale green stormwater infrastructure program.

Without the robust support of Parks and Recreation, the Fairmount Park Conservancy and groups like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Trust for Public Land, that might not be the case.

Resident Helps Spot—and Preserve—Some of Philly’s Oldest Water Infrastructure

In a city as old as Philadelphia, there’s a chance you’ll come across something historic pretty much any time you put a shovel into the ground.

That was the case on Wednesday, May 3 as workers replaced a water line along the 900 block of Spruce Street. During their excavation, they came across what looked like old logs:

Spruce Street Wooden Water Mains Uncovered

How old?

History, Nature and Green Stormwater Tools: Tour this Roxborough Gem with Local Experts

Then and Now: The historic photo at top, taken is Oct. 15, 1897, shows workers lining the Upper Roxborogh Reservoir with brick. The lower Google Maps image shows the site today, outlined in yellow. Credit: Phillyh2o.org
Then and Now:
The historic photo at top, taken is Oct. 15, 1897, shows workers lining the Upper Roxborough Reservoir with brick. The lower Google Maps image shows the site today, outlined in yellow. Credit: Phillyh2o.org

Philadelphia Water Department historian Adam Levine and PWD staff members are hosting a walking tour of the long-ago retired Upper Roxborough Reservoir—a place whose past illuminates both the roots of its Northwest Philly neighborhood and the evolution of Philadelphia’s modern-day water infrastructure.

The tour takes place at the Upper Roxborough Reservoir, 601 Port Royal Ave., on May 17 and will last from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. This event is being held as a part of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation’s Love Your Park Week 2017.

Please RSVP here.

Two Philly Free Streets Activity Stops Inspire Wonder About Philly’s Waterways

The Philadelphia Water Dept. will have two activity stops on the Philly Free Streets route where you can explore obscure but fascinating parts of our water infrastructure and history.
The Philadelphia Water Dept. will host two activity stops on the Philly Free Streets route where you can explore fascinating parts of our water infrastructure and history.

Have you heard about Philly Free Streets? On Saturday, Sept. 24, the City of Philadelphia will close down 10 miles of streets to cars from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. so that residents can enjoy those spaces for walking, biking, running and just plain fun.

The idea was inspired by the joy many experienced when the Papal visit from Pope Francis closed streets to car traffic, leaving them open for people.
Making this exercise-encouraging day even more fun, City departments will join a number of organizations in offering activity stops along the route where Philly Free Street-ers can learn more about their communities and engage in exciting activities.

Here’s what the Philadelphia Water Department will be offering along the Philly Free Streets route:

Infrastructure Week Throwback: Graff Collection Shines Light on Early Water Champion, Artist

“Design for Cast Iron Wheel by F. Graff” from the Frederick Graff Collection at the Franklin Institute. Credit: Philadelphia Water, the Franklin Institute and The Athenaeum of Philadelphia.
“Design for Cast Iron Wheel by F. Graff” from the Frederick Graff Collection at the Franklin Institute. Credit: Philadelphia Water, the Franklin Institute and The Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

This post explores the foundations of Philadelphia's water infrastructure as we continue to highlight the crucial systems that keep Philly running during Infrastructure Week 2016

Last year, Philadelphia Water historian Adam Levine joined department employees like long-time engineer Drew Brown on a tour of the Franklin Institute archives, which include a trove of 18th and 19th century drawings by Frederick Graff, an engineer himself with incredible artistic talent who helped to design and operate some of Philadelphia’s earliest water infrastructure. Included in the collection are a number of water-related works by other artists, engineers and cartographers. 

Graff’s collection—much of which incorporates watercolor and focuses on hydraulic systems and Philadelphia’s rivers and streams—showcases a fascinating blend of the technical and beautiful, capturing the most finite details of buildings, machines and natural terrain with breathtaking style.

Come Out and Hear the Cobbs Creek Story!

“The valley of Cobb’s Creek, north of Market Street” by H. Parker Rolfe. Source: City Parks Association 1905-06 Annual Report. Credit: Adam Levine and Phillyh2o.org
“The valley of Cobb’s Creek, north of Market Street” by H. Parker Rolfe. Source: City Parks Association 1905-06 Annual Report. Credit: Adam Levine and Phillyh2o.org

We know that people who are aware of their local watershed and the challenges it faces—along with why that water is important—make for better stewards. They care about issues like keeping pet waste and litter out of the streets that ultimately drain into the watershed. And they know what an important role programs like Green City, Clean Waters play in protecting their watershed.

Encouraging that kind of engagement and knowledge is the goal guiding our efforts to collect and share the stories and history connected to the 22-square mile Cobbs Creek Watershed, which is part of the larger Darby-Cobbs Watershed, one of seven in the city. Cobbs Creek itself starts right around Haverford College and runs through the western suburbs and West Philadelphia before entering Darby Creek above the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge near the Philadelphia International Airport (click here for an interactive watershed map).

Next week, we’ll be hosting a special talk about the history of Cobbs Creek with Adam Levine, a local historian who has spent two decades studying and documenting the history of water and waterways in Philadelphia. You would be hard pressed to find another person with more knowledge of what the city’s watersheds have been through since the first European settlers came here, and Levine’s presentations are always fascinating and informative.

Throwback Thursday: Philadelphia Water Commissioners, Past and Present

From left to right: Kumar Kishinchand (1992-2000 and 2001-2004), Bernard Brunwasser (2004-2011), Carmen F. Guarino (1972-1980), Howard Neukrug (2011-present) and William Marrazzo (1980-1988)
From left to right: Kumar Kishinchand, Bernard Brunwasser, Carmen F. Guarino, Howard Neukrug and William Marrazzo.

The photo above is a throwback to the 200th anniversary kickoff event for the Fairmount Water Works held this year on September 10—but it’s also a throwback to four decades of leadership at Philadelphia Water.

 It’s not too often you get a group with shared experiences like this together, so we made sure to document the moment and wanted to share it with you. Here's a little more history:

Throwback Thursday: Our Infrastructure Foundations

In this week's throwback post, we see some large mains under construction
August 4th, 1904— almost exactly 111 years ago.
As the three large, cast iron mains are laid in a Northeast neighborhood, some residents have gathered to watch the construction activity.

We couldn't help but take a closer look at the awesome facial hair on the guy on the right side of the photo (see the close-up of him below). Maybe this is really Fishtown, circa 2015?

Throwback Thursday: The Amazing 'Torresdale Conduit'

Inside the making of the Torresdale Conduit: A worker pumps water from the huge tunnel in 1903. Credit: Philadelphia Water.

In this week's throwback post, we look at a photo from the Philadelphia Water archives taken on October 24, 1903.

While a bit eerie—14 people died during the multiyear construction of the project pictured—this photo does give you a real sense of appreciation for the scale of water infrastructure beneath our feet and the herculean effort and sacrifice made by the generations before us to make sure their kids (and all of us) could have a future with clean, safe drinking water.

In this image, streams of groundwater entered the Torresdale Conduit as it was blasted out of bedrock, hampering construction. This worker used a hand-operated pump to remove the excess water. The conduit took two and a half years to complete, and had a capacity of 300 million gallons per day.

Still in use today, the Torresdale Conduit was built along the Delaware River waterfront in the first decade of the 20th century. It carries filtered water from the Torresdale Filters (now the Baxter Water Treatment Plant) to the Lardner’s Point Pumping Station, which pumps the water into the city’s system of distribution pipes. When they were completed, both the filter plant (covering about 75 acres) and the pumping station (with a capacity of 200 million gallons a day) were each the largest of their kind in the world.

In his 1987 book Typhoid and the Politics of Public Health in Nineteenth-century Philadelphia, Michael P. McCarthy wrote that the project was popular because the engineers saved about $2 million by using brick instead of cast iron. But there was also, apparently, some civic pride:  "... the conduit was quite popular because, in addition to the savings involved, it was a sophisticated project that gave the city a good deal of favorable publicity."

The conduit is about 2.5 miles long and about 10.5 feet in diameter. Constructed of bricks and mortar, it lies about 100 feet underground and is still an integral part of our water distribution system.

For more information on the history of the city’s water filtration system, check out the work of historian Adam Levine by clicking here.

Throwback Thursday: Cost of Water in 1898 vs. 2015

From the Philadelphia Water Archives: A bulletin board outside the archive room at 12th and Market.
From the Philadelphia Water Archives: A bulletin board outside the archive room at 12th and Market.

When you think about the truly priceless value of clean drinking water—something we all need to survive—compared to what it actually costs, tap water may well be the most undervalued commodity out there.

At 7/10ths of a cent per gallon, Philadelphia Water’s tap is an incredibly good deal, especially when you consider how much work we do to make sure 1.7 million customers have constant access to this resource.

And, since we distribute about 275 million gallons of drinking water every day, we think about the cost quite a bit.

We came across a photo in the archives that proves we’ve been thinking about the cost of drinking water (and how to communicate that to our customers) for a long time:

A Feb. 25, 1898 photograph from the Philadelphia Water archives showing the cost of drinking water.
A Feb. 25, 1898 photograph from the Philadelphia Water archives showing the cost of drinking water. Credit: Philadelphia Water.

In this 1898 photo, taken at the Fairmount Water Works, officials created what’s essentially a 117-year-old infographic by posing with various containers of water and providing the cost of each by volume.

It got us thinking: what would that same amount of water cost today? Naturally, we did the math, and here’s what we found:

Cost of drinking water in Philadelphia in 1898 vs. 2015. Credit: Philadelphia Water.
Cost of drinking water in Philadelphia in 1898 vs. 2015. Credit: Philadelphia Water.

Adjusted to today's value using the Consumer Price Index (a dollar in 1898 would be worth a bit more than $28 in 2015), these numbers represent a more than 500 percent increase in the cost of drinking water.

What’s behind the spike? The answer to that question comes from another question: how on earth did they provide 1,000 gallons of water for just $00.04 ($1.15 in 2015 dollars)?

Well, let’s just say that what they called “drinking water” in 1898 was a far cry from what Philadelphians expect when they turn on a faucet today. There was no guarantee that the water wouldn’t make you sick, let alone look clean.

Our historian, Adam Levine, says water treatment at the time was pretty much non-existent: river water was pumped to reservoirs where, if demand happened to be low enough, it had time to clarify before going off to homes. High demand, however, often meant the water didn’t even have time to settle, and the results could be rather ugly.

"I have come across a number of cartoons from the period that talk about the water running out of pipes as black as ink, due to the coal dust (washed down from upstate coal mines) suspended in the river water after heavy rains," Levine says.

For a Throwback Thursday double-dip, let’s take a look at one of those cartoons:

A cartoon from August, 1898 addresses typhoid in Schuylkill River drinking water.
A cartoon from August, 1898 addresses typhoid in Schuylkill River drinking water. Credit: Philadelphia Water. 

Ouch.

Today, we still let the water settle—but that’s just one step in complex process that involves filtration, treatment for pathogens, and lot and lots of testing. We were one of the first cities to use filtration, and the advent of chlorination in the early 1900s helped to make widespread water-borne illnesses a thing of the past—a past that, as we see here, meant very cheap but dangerous drinking water.

“Our largest [budget] items are for chemicals and energy (electricity and natural gas),” says Debra McCarty, Director of Operations for Philadelphia Water. “The process of treating river water to become potable water has become more complicated over the years. The standards to which we treat drinking water are far higher than ever. Regulations continue to change, and we continue to meet them.”

All that work (check out this graphic for a look at how we treat tap water) adds costs to the price of drinking water, but at $00.07 for every 10 gallons, we think it’s a pretty good deal for something truly priceless—safe, tasty tap water 24/7.

The value seems like an even better deal when you consider the cost of drinking bottled water.
The American Water Works Association estimates bottled water costs Americans anywhere from 300 to 2000 percent MORE per gallon than the average gallon of tap water.

So make the smart choice: drink tap water, save money, and be glad you aren’t living in the 1890s!

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