Floating through Waterworks

Posted July 18th, 2013 at 9:45 pm.

By: Sarina Shrestha

Last Friday on July 12th I joined Professor Victor Donnay’s Summer Institute on Math, Computing and Sustainability class on a field trip to Fairmount Park Waterworks. I had mentally prepared myself for the onslaught of a history, city planning and waterworks systems lesson all rolled into one. To my very pleasant surprise the outcome was to the contrary.

The Water System in Philadelphia


  Participants learning more about the history of water system in Philadelphia

Friday morning, Professor Donnay, Professor John Dougherty, the participants of Summer Institute, Betsy and I, gathered in front of the Waterworks building situated at the Schuylkill River, the latter known to be the source of drinking water for Philadelphia for a substantial length of time. “However this was not always the case”, states Ellen Freedman Schultz, Education and Outreach Coordinator and our tour guide. Before pollution became an uncontrollable entity, back in the 1700’s, groundwater was the main source of drinking water. With the contamination of groundwater, the first solution under consideration became Delaware River. However, it was used for transporting goods, and therefore deemed unsafe. Naturally, the city turned towards Schuylkill River, the next best option. A reservoir was built at the site where the Art Museum is situated now and steam engines were placed to transport water from river to reservoir. The city had found the solution to its problem, but it was a temporary one, hence, it could not last long. Streams were used as drainage in Philadelphia. With the population increase, a proportional increase in sewage was witnessed.  Therefore, in the 19th century the streams were buried; an underground, covered sewage system was constructed. Despite precautions, the sewage would directly flow into the rivers without any treatment contaminating drinking water. Not until the 1900’s did filtration of drinking water start using sand and charcoal. And 50 years after that sewage treatment plans were initiated by the city.

Drinking water filtration and Sewage treatment plans are still going on today. But the water supply of Philadelphia is still not completely protected. Due to rise in impervious surfaces in and around the city, now the city has to deal with storm-water management issues. In order to resolve this problem the city started Green City Clean Water Program, which aimed to resolve storm water issues by making more green areas in the city. As the green areas are pervious water would seep into the ground instead of flowing into the sewage and overflowing it. Also, since the water passes through the ground, it undergoes natural filtration. This program is a win-win situation for everyone as the city gains more green areas making it prettier, storm water issues are managed and there is filtered groundwater.

Sustainability and Interaction:


Interesting utilization of toilet lids to impart information

Once the discussion regarding the water system in Philadelphia came to an end, the group toured the Waterworks building. I was amazed by the fantastic, successful attempt of the department at maintaining the old water mill upon which the current day building took its roots. The water mill in question was used to transfer water from the river to the reservoir. While renovations, alterations and additions had certainly been made, one must applaud the effort put forth by the department staff into maintaining certain aspects of the old mill, such as the pipes etc.

Interactive machines placed along walls allowed users to gain information about the rain cycle, the water system in Philadelphia, or even the water content of a human body, all with the push of a button. It was small wonder that children absolutely adored the place. As I walked down the hallway, past the big turbine, I saw numerous toilet lids on the wall. The aroused my curiosity, and i soon learnt the lids can be opened in order to gain more information about water wastage. Ingenious, almost, I thought to myself. And it doesn’t end there. The last ‘exhibit’ was an interesting structure named Pollutionopolis which basically showed how daily activities can cause pollution.


Interaction in classroom about green activities

At the culmination of our tour, we entered the classroom. As the field trip was meant for the Summer Institute for teachers, we discussed about the activities to educate students about sustainability. This discussion brought out the importance of hands on experience and involvement in the activities to actually understand the importance of sustainability. This was highlighted by the visit of Matt, an engineer, and his assistant who were developing Sunflower sensors and snake sensors. Those sensors, when placed in a garden, would detect moisture level, sunlight and other factors. The information could be transferred to computer which could then be used by the students to analyze and synthesize conclusion. Moreover, the sunflower sensors could be built by students for a price of about $200 per piece and snake sensors for about $50. This project would allow students an opportunity of gaining 360 degree experience starting right from making the device right up to utilizing the information for the betterment of the environment.


Engineer Matt and his student intern showing sunflower sensor to the class

Hence, instead of the regular droning lecture, I relieved a lesson first hand in the development of water supplies in the city as well as the real importance of sustaining our waterworks and water supply. I not only learned about the history of water system in Philadelphia but also how it shaped the water system into present form. I got to know more about how students themselves can be involved in sustainability issues and the importance of practical experience in sustainability issues. Let’s just say I got a first-hand experience into the vast world of sustainability that morning, learning from the mistakes of the past, hoping to avoid them in the future.

And that is how the first part of the trip concluded. The second part of the trip will be updated soon.

Filed under: Teaching, Learning & Research by Sarina Shrestha

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