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.
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 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
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
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 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
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
The intake for Henrico's new drinking water treatment plant is upstream of Boshers Dam. The county's long-term water supply will be the James River, but the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality was concerned that increased water removal from the river during a drought would have adverse environmental impacts. Henrico's solution is to stockpile James River water in an off-stream reservoir during times of high flow, and to release that water during droughts.
The Cobb's Creek will be constructed in Cumberland County, and Henrico will partner with Cumberland and Powhatan counties to supply their needs as well. The creek's small watershed does not produce sufficient runoff to fill the planned 140-deep reservoir with 15 billion gallons of water, so Henrico will pump James River water behind the dam on Cobb's Creek at times when there is excess runoff (typically in the winter/spring).
No pipeline is planned between the reservoir and Henrico's drinking water treatment plant. Instead, when the James River flow declines below the drinking water needs of the county (and the minimum flow levels required for fish in the river), water will be released from the reservoir upstream and withdrawn at the Henrico's current intake near Bosher's Dam.10