Water Treatment Tales

Julie Slavet
Dec 4, 2009

Have you ever wondered how the water that flows down the Delaware or the Schuylkill Rivers gets treated and makes it to your house? Or are you curious about where the waste you flush down the toilet or spit down the sink goes? If you answered yes, I would recommend taking a tour of the Philadelphia Water Department’s treatment plants.

TTF had the amazing opportunity to visit the Belmont Drinking Water Treatment Plant and the Southeast Pollution Control Plant to see the process by which our clean water gets to our homes and what happens to the waste that leaves our homes.

The Belmont Drinking Water Treatment Plant cleans an average of 40 million gallons of water a day to provide Philadelphians with clean drinking water — and the Southeast Pollution Control Plant, the smallest and newest of the wastewater treatment plants, cleans an average of 91 million gallons of water per day! These are incredible processes and ones that anyone can go see. All you have to do is find a group of 10 to 20 people and contact Dottie Baumgarten at dottiebaumgarten@gmail.com or Drew Brown at 215-685-6098.

Water distribution in Philadelphia began in 1801. Believe it or not, the first pipes that were used to pipe water under our streets were hollowed out trees! These wooden pipes were buried underground and connected by iron couplings. These wooden pipes are still being found today.

Water has come a long way from the untreated water that used to flow through those wooden pipes. Water now goes through a series of settling, filtration and purification processes before it arrives clean and delicious at your home.

Depending on where you live in Philadelphia, the water that comes out of your faucet in Philadelphia is either from the Delaware or the Schuylkill River. Pumps are used to get the water from the intakes to the clean water treatment facilities. From the Reservoir where the water is initially stored, gravity is used to carry the water through the treatment process.

Water is first stored for 24 hours to allow large particles to settle out. Chemicals are then added that attach to small particles in the water to remove finer sediment as well as to kill any bacteria.  Sediment is removed and water is strained through a multilayer filtration system. Chemicals are added at various points in the process, and water quality and chemical concentration and Total Dissolved Solids are monitored constantly. The last chemicals to be added are chlorine to keep bacteria from contaminating the water, phosphates to reduce the corrosive power of the water and fluoride to keep teeth strong and healthy.

The wastewater treatment process, while a little less appetizing, is just as important and interesting (although I don’t recommend eating right before or after a tour!). All of the waste water from our homes is drawn by gravity down to the pollution control plants where pollutants and debris are removed before the water is released back into the Delaware River. The process by which the wastewater is cleaned mimics the natural physical and biological processes that occur through the use of microscopic organisms, but at a faster, controlled pace. This process keeps our waterways clean and enjoyable.

A big thanks for all the hard work the Philadelphia Water Department does to provide us all with clean, safe drinking water and rivers!

Check out PWD’s website to learn more about the Urban Water Cycle or take a stroll down to the site of the oldest Philadelphia Pumping Station and visit the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center.

Drinking Water Intake

Pumping Station

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