Turn on the tap and clean water comes out. Sounds simple, right? Maybe a little too simple? In reality, the delivery of drinking water is an intricate process, from intake to treatment to distribution, that has evolved over thousands of years. At every step, today’s water utilities are acutely focused on ensuring drinking water is safe, clean and available.
To the average person, it’s hard to imagine the journey that drinking water takes from its source to the faucet. That’s due in large part to the incredible work of our water utilities, whose behind-the-scenes (and under-the-ground) efforts makes it seem so, well, effortless. That’s why National Drinking Water Week is observed and celebrated across the country the first week in May. It’s an opportunity to shine a spotlight on our most precious resource and everything that goes into bringing it into our homes.
The quest for clean water is not a new phenomenon. Since prehistoric times, water has been at the center of mankind’s pursuits. Six thousand years ago, early civilizations would settle around drinking water sources. Sanskrit writings dating back to around 1500 B.C. describe water treatment methods like sand or charcoal filtration and boiling, and drawings found in Egyptian tombs depict primitive tools for purifying water. Some ancient cultures even used alum to settle and extract suspended solids. (Sound familiar, water treatment folks?)
Water innovations continued to transpire over the centuries that followed: in 600 B.C., Hippocrates designed a cloth bag (the Hippocratic Sleeve) to filter sediments from boiled water and around 200 B.C., the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians pioneered the use of aqueducts for water supply and irrigation. Fast-forwarding to the 17th century, we find Sir Francis Bacon experimenting with desalination and Italian physician Lucas Antonius Portius designing a multi-step sand filtration process.
Until that time, however, water purification had been focused solely on aesthetic qualities: taste, odor and clarity. But as scientists began to better understand microbes and the health effects of drinking contaminated water, attention soon shifted toward disinfection.
In 1855, obstetrician Dr. John Snow made one of the biggest breakthroughs in the history of modern public health. After painstaking research — and a considerable amount of doubt from his colleagues at the time — Dr. Snow was able to link a cholera outbreak in London to a contaminated drinking water pipe. His work catalyzed a movement to improve water and sanitation that ultimately led to the use of chlorine as a disinfectant against waterborne pathogens, first in Hamburg, Germany, in 1893, and then Maidstone, England, in 1897. In 1908, the United States followed suit when a water treatment facility in Jersey City, New Jersey, became the first in the country to use chlorine as a primary disinfectant.
Today, guided by regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, water professionals work tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure communities have access to clean, safe drinking water. From the engineers who design treatment and distribution systems to the operators who oversee plant operations to the men and woman who maintain our infrastructure and read our meters — countless individuals have participated in the process that results in each of us having access to tap water when we need it.
This Drinking Water Week, let’s all fill our (water) glasses and raise a toast to our water utilities and the services they provide. Thank you for all you do!
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