Richmond's Drinking Water

Richmond's raw water intake on the James River is at a diversion dam on the downstream end of Williams Island
Richmond's raw water intake on the James River is at a diversion dam on the downstream end of Williams Island
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper

The Algonkian-speaking tribe that lived at the Fall Line of the James River in 1607 relied upon springs to provide drinking water. The first Europeans to settle the site, which was chartered as the City of Richmond in 1737, also drilled wells to supply individual houses.

Today, some residents still fill up jugs at springs in public parks, but Richmond relies upon the James River as its source of raw water. A dam at Williams Island diverts river water to settling basins near Byrd Park, which then supply the drinking water processing facility. However, the city's drinking water system has evolved over many years.

Richmond was the first city in the United States to build a sand filter to clean its drinking water. The wells within the city were growing contaminated, so in 1830 Richmond decided to draw fresh water from the James River. At the time, only 44 cities in the US distributed public drinking water; everywhere else, customers had to draw water from wells.1

The city recruited a German-trained engineer named Albert Stein, who had just created a drinking water system for Lynchburg. Stein designed a standard system to pump water from the James River to the new Marshall Reservoir 160 feet above river level. From the reservoir, gravity distributed the water through pipes.

red X marks location of the old Marshall Reservoir - now Clarke Springs Elementary School
red X marks location of the old Marshall Reservoir - now Clarke Springs Elementary School
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper

The unusual element was his creation of a filtration system. The project was intended to filter out the mud from the river water, improving the taste and smell of the city's water. (It was not until 1854, after the London cholera epidemic, that scientists recognized clean-looking water could harbor unhealthy bacteria and viruses.)

Stein's filtration design required raw water to be pumped upwards through a bed of gravel, then through a top layer of sand. Larger particles were trapped in the gravel; smaller particles were trapped in the sand. Purging the particles from the filter required using water flowing in the other direction, draining down through the sand and gravel and flushing everything into a waste outlet.2

the pump to lift James River water to the Marshall Reservoir was located just upstream of the modern Lee Bridge, near where President Monroe was buried in Hollywood Cemetery
the pump to lift James River water to the Marshall Reservoir was located just upstream of the modern Lee Bridge,
near where President Monroe was buried in Hollywood Cemetery
Source: Library of Congress, Illustrated atlas of the city of Richmond, Va. (1877)

The filter system was abandoned after just a few years, but the Marshall Reservoir (on the site of today's Clarke Springs Elementary School) survived until 1934.3

In the 1870's, Richmond expanded its water system by building the "New Reservoir" a mile west of the Marshall Reservoir, moving the raw water intake upstream, and designing New Reservoir Park (renamed Byrd Park in 1906) to surround the new reservoir. A granite Pump House was completed on the bank on the James River and Kanawha Canal in 1883, followed by two narrow settling basins. The Pump House lifted water up to the New Reservoir until 1924, and the Pump House Pavilion provided a social setting for many parties.

The city built Williams Dam in 1905, increasing the supply of water even in drought years. Chlorination started in 1913.4

Richmond's New Reservoir was located in Byrd Park, west of the Marshall Reservoir and at a higher elevation
Richmond's New Reservoir was located in Byrd Park, west of the Marshall Reservoir and at a higher elevation
Source: Library of Congress, Illustrated atlas of the city of Richmond, Va. (1877)

A 1917 report indicated the settling basins had not been cleaned out since originally constructed. Silt had filled up 1/3 of the storage capacity, and the city was considering shifting the intake to draw water from behind Bosher's Dam further upstream.

At the time, the treatment process consisted of letting solids settle, using alum at times to coagulate them, then adding chlorine. The process did not produce uncontaminated drinking water. The 1917 report stated simply:5

...the city of Richmond must be brought to a realization that its present water supply is unsafe. Bacillus coli is present in practically all the raw water, and to a very considerable extent in spite of the chlorine treatment presumptive tests indicate its presence in the clear water.

Water was pumped from the treatment plant (at river level) to supply the west end of the city - the "high" level of elevation - from a standpipe at Byrd Park. The "intermediate" level, which included most of the city, was supplied from larger reservoirs also located at Byrd Park. Water flowed down from the Byrd Park reservoirs to the old Marshall Reservoir next to Hollywood Cemetery, to suppky "manufacturing and low class, congested residential districts, and a part of South Richmond."6

In all regions, water pressure to fire hydrants was inadequate to supply more than one engine. As the report noted:7

The present water supply distribution system of Richmond, like many other cities of this country, is the result of haphazard expansion to meet the rapidly increasing demands of the community rather than the development of a well defined scheme for furnishing an adequate supply to the city as a whole.

The Pump House and William Island/williams Dam are now part of James River Park. Richmond's Department of Public Works focuses on water supply and distribution, while the recreational opportunities in the city are managed by a separate part of the city government.8

the Byrd Park Pump House was designed with a large pavilion, to provide recreational as well as utility services
the Byrd Park Pump House was designed with a large pavilion, to provide recreational as well as utility services
Source: Library of Congress, General View Of Pumphouse From NORTH - James River & Kanawha Canal, Pumphouse

That assessment triggered an upgrade of the waterworks. When a new water treatment plant was completed at its current location in 1924, the city finally was able to filter its drinking water before distribution.

Richmond has contracted with nearby jurisdictions to supply them with drinking water. The contract with Henrico County provides for the purchase of a minimum of 11.8 million gallons/day, up to a maximum of 35 million gallons/day, through the year 2040. After negotiations with Richmond, the city transferred water rights to 80 million gallons/day to the county in 1994, and Henrico built its own water treatment plant in 2004. The county will continue to purchase water from Richmond until 2040, giving the city time to amortize its investment in facilities to supply that customer.9

Links

References

1. Baker, Moses N., The Quest for Pure Water: the History of Water Purification from the Earliest Records to the Twentieth Century, 2nd Edition. American Water Works Association, Denver, Colorado, 1981 (Volume 1), p.130, http://books.google.com/books?id=IixBAAAAMAAJ (last checked October 31, 2013)
2. Charles E. Bolling, "Description of the Water Works at Richmond, Virginia," Journal of the New England Water Works Association, New England Water Works Association, 1890, pp.39-40 (last checked October 31, 2013)
3. "The Murder of Lillian Madison, 1885," The Shockoe Examiner blog, June 18, 2010, http://theshockoeexaminer.blogspot.com/2010/06/murder-of-lillian-madison-1885.html
4. Michael J. McGuire, "August 29, 1924," This Day in Water History blog, http://thisdayinwaterhistory.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/august-29/; "Byrd Park Pump House," National Park Service, http://www.cr.nps.gov/nR/travel/richmond/ByrdParkPumpHouse.html (last checked October 31, 2013)
5. "Richmond, Virginia: Report on a Survey of the City Government," Bureau of Municipal Research, New York, N.Y., 1917, p.893-895, http://books.google.com/books?id=45gXAAAAYAAJ (last checked October 31, 2013)
6. "The Murder of Lillian Madison, 1885," The Shockoe Examiner blog, June 18, 2010, http://theshockoeexaminer.blogspot.com/2010/06/murder-of-lillian-madison-1885.html
7. "Richmond, Virginia: Report on a Survey of the City Government," Bureau of Municipal Research, New York, N.Y., 1917, p.901 http://books.google.com/books?id=45gXAAAAYAAJ (last checked October 31, 2013)
8. "Williams Island Now Part of James River Park," Richmond.com, December 18, 2012, http://www.richmond.com/recreation/river-guide/article_129b5338-486d-11e2-84d8-0019bb30f31a.html (last checked October 31, 2013)
9. "History of the Department of Public Utilities," Henrico County Department of Public Works, November 2011, http://www.co.henrico.va.us/pdfs/about-henrico/29_PublicUtilties.pdf (last checked October 31, 2013)


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