Commentary: Philly's 200-year commitment to clean, safe water

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The Fairmount Water Works along the Schuykill

By Joseph M. Manko

In recent weeks, the issue of safe drinking water has been unusually conspicuous, thanks to headlines emanating from Flint, Mich., and elsewhere. Philadelphians have good reason to be proud of their city's robust tradition of watershed protection and commitment to providing safe, top-quality drinking water.

That commitment was first made 200 years ago, when the city's government, business, and community leaders decided on an innovative plan to create a public waterworks system that would guarantee safe drinking water for the citizens of Philadelphia. Their hope was that by ensuring access to clean drinking water, they could prevent periodic epidemics of diseases such as yellow fever and cholera.

The Fairmount Water Works was created for that purpose and not only served Philadelphia well but also became a shining example for other cities. To help bolster their plan to preserve clean water, our forebears bought up large parcels of land along the Schuylkill to keep the city's drinking water safe. The beautiful urban natural resource known as Fairmount Park is the result of that effort.

Today, the Water Works continues to serve Philadelphians and the region. While no longer a working water-pumping station, it is widely well regarded for the important role it plays in educating school students of all ages, as well as everyday citizens, about the importance of safeguarding our water resources.

The Water Works sponsors a wide variety of educational programs, including field trips, laboratory-based activities, and special events, to help visitors gain a better understanding of the various types of wildlife that depend on the river and how water quality relates to all life.

The Water Works also sponsors science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) education initiatives such as Seeing is Believing, Project Flow, and Schuylkill Acts and Impacts, which incorporate experiential learning with lab and field experiences, and programs to help teachers connect classroom lessons with real-world challenges.

The Water Works is the educational arm of Philadelphia Water and enables the department to meet its state and federal education and public engagement requirements under the Clean Water Act. And what better place to accomplish this mission than an engineering and historic landmark on the banks of the Schuylkill?

Even more important are the tremendous private-public contributions made by dedicated patrons, individual philanthropists, and many of the region's most prominent nonprofit and community-focused foundations.

This private support helps expand the Water Works' educational programming and reach. It allows Philadelphia Water to be more creative and innovative in its strategies to communicate the importance - and the challenges - of maintaining a dependable source of clean, safe water.

It is thanks to this support that the Water Works is able to continually expand its educational programming and help put Philadelphians among the most knowledgable citizens in the nation on issues such as sustainability, water quality, ecology, public health, and storm-water management.

Over the years, this magnificent and historic facility has meant many things to many people. Two hundred years ago, the Water Works was born as a shining monument to our forebears' ingenuity and commitment to the health of the region's citizens. Now in its bicentennial year, the Water Works continues to serve a similar role by educating our citizens about the importance of protecting our environment and working together as an engaged community to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy access to nature and all its blessings.

Joseph M. Manko is a founding partner of Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox and vice president of the Fairmount Park Conservancy. jmanko@mankogold.com