WHY SHOULD WE care about our rivers? Why are they suddenly elevated to such a high profile in our city's conversation on urban life?

From the Philadelphia Water Department's perspective, asking why we should care about our rivers is like asking a fisherman why he cares about fish. Our rivers are our city's drinking water supply - the source of our sustenance.

Our rivers nourished and fed Philadelphia's transition from a colonial town to an industrial center unrivaled in the world to a city that could provide an abundance of safe drinking water for a multitude of purposes. Our rivers, like the fisherman's fish, are our priceless, irreplaceable resource and our end product.

But we have always known, and this fact is frequently reaffirmed through the GreenPlan Philadelphia public dialogue, that our rivers are also a source of spiritual comfort and visual beauty. Our citizens want guaranteed access to our rivers (and streams). They want to be able to play alongside them, boat in them, touch them, be awed by their beauty. They want our rivers to be owned by us all.

The water department's mission to protect and restore our water resources perfectly aligns with Philadelphians' desire to claim the rivers as their own. We support citizen efforts to gain and keep such rights, since only through the citizens' sense of ownership can we expect to find the lifelong stewards that our rivers deserve.

It takes a large vision to overcome the many challenges that confront us to find solutions to flooding, combined-sewer overflows, and the protection and restoration of our river and stream waterways, and to do so in a way that supports a livable, green, expanding city. These challenges cry out for the integration of environmental protection with responsible land use and infrastructure improvements.

Underground, we have a magnificent infrastructure designed and built in the late 19th century - in its time, an unparalleled public works vision that resulted in the reduction of cholera and typhoid epidemics, facilitated the industrial revolution and laid the foundation for the development the Philadelphia of today.

UNFORTUNATELY, the system alone may not be adequate for today's Clean Water Act requirements or the demand placed on it by intense rainstorms that have plagued some neighborhoods with basement flooding over the past few years.

The question: Do we solve our problems by trying to reinvent the past, or do we come up with modern solutions that consider sustainability aspects to urban life and the environment?

Our philosophy is to solve these challenges by looking at our tools and the resources and knowledge acquired 130 years after our original venture. Our modern-day "tools" are designed to integrate land, infrastructure, waterways and community needs to develop the optimal solutions that meet our multiple goals. It is our opinion that all of these goals must be dealt with collectively to manage stormwater in a cost-effective way.

If we can keep that rainwater out of our sewers by using our land or facilities to take on nature's drainage role while at the same time creating a green community amenity, then we are doing our job. At the same time, we are striving to identify and design large-scale modifications to our infrastructure to alleviate basement flooding and sewerage overflows in our rivers.

When we can solve flooding or sewer problems by providing kids with a basketball court or a soccer field that is ideal to play on and that at the same time efficiently drains stormwater back into the groundwater, we have not only improved the environment, but we have also improved the quality of life for the residents of Philadelphia.

The resurgence of vitality along our waterfronts coincides with dramatic improvements in river water quality and an increasingly aware public of the importance of healthy, trash-free streams and waterfront access.

The city's natural spaces are now viewed as treasures, to be protected and restored to become community amenities - urban refuges in our concrete and asphalt covered world.

As recreation in and along our rivers increases, the Philadelphia Water Department looks forward to being a strong partner in Philadelphia's rebirth as a livable, expanding city.


Howard M. Neukrug is director of the Office of Watersheds for the Philadelphia Water Department.