Where the water comes from

Back in March, the New York Times featured DC WASA’s (now DC Water) new director, George Hawkins, talking about the challenges of dealing with aging water and sewer infrastructure in American cities.  The piece lays out the challenges facing most American cities, currently resting on our laurels of the investments from previous generations:

For decades, these systems — some built around the time of the Civil War — have been ignored by politicians and residents accustomed to paying almost nothing for water delivery and sewage removal. And so each year, hundreds of thousands of ruptures damage streets and homes and cause dangerous pollutants to seep into drinking water supplies.

Mr. Hawkins’s answer to such problems will not please a lot of citizens. Like many of his counterparts in cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, Atlanta and elsewhere, his job is partly to persuade the public to accept higher water rates, so that the utility can replace more antiquated pipes.

The problem is serious, and Hawkins is here to spread the word:

“We’re relying on water systems built by our great-grandparents, and no one wants to pay for the decades we’ve spent ignoring them,” said Jeffrey K. Griffiths, a professor at Tufts University and a member of the E.P.A.’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council.

“There’s a lot of evidence that people are getting sick,” he added. “But because everything is out of sight, no one really understands how bad things have become.”

To bring those lapses into the light, Mr. Hawkins has become a cheerleader for rate increases. He has begun a media assault highlighting the city’s water woes. He has created a blog and a Facebook page that explain why pipes break. He regularly appears on newscasts and radio shows, and has filled a personal Web site with video clips of his appearances.

Part of Hawkins’ ‘cheerleader’ duties included a recent blogger roundtable, with several local blogs (DCist, Greater Greater Washington, District Curmudgeon, We Love DC, Hill is Home, etc) offering detailed insight into the the most seemingly basic aspects of city life.  For me, the most interesting visual to come out of these meetings is this map from the Curmudgeons of DC’s water mains in 1985.

DC WASA map 1985

The system is based on gravity and pressure, each color represents a band of elevation served by certain reservoirs in the city.  There are two separate systems (for the most part) east and west of the Anacostia river.  The width of the lines represents the diameter of the water mains under the street.   When seen from afar, the color bands give a rough approximation of DC’s topography – the red and blue colors clearly show the extent of the L’Enfant plan, for example – which L’Enfant specifically limited to the flat parts of DC.

A closer inspection (click the image for a larger version) shows the fantastic level of detail in the various water main routes, the large mains that connect reservoirs to areas of similar elevation, as well as the local distribution to the end users.

DC WASA map 1985 cap hill

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