The Global Water Alliance (GWA) in conjunction with the Fairmount Water Works of Philadelphia is pleased to announce the project, “Embracing History and Technology to make Education an Integral Part of Good Water Governance,” developed by Patrick Cairo, Christiaan Morssink and Joanne Dahme for the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center has been selected for the Initiative Dakar 2022, a program of the World Water Forum to be held in Dakar, Senegal March 22 -27, 2022.  Congratulations to the applicant team!  Read on for more information regarding this very exciting project.


Initially inspired and then conceived as the means to supply an abundance of Schuylkill River water to the ever-growing populace of early 19th century Philadelphia, the Fairmount Water Works (FWW) exemplified the can-do attitude of a young nation. Frederick Graff, Philadelphia’s chief engineer, was charged with designing and overseeing the construction of the nation’s first large municipal pumping and reservoir system that would sluice water into the homes and businesses of citizens while astounding the country and the world with its architectural innovations and beauty. In 1815, when the FWW began pumping water from the Schuylkill River, city leadership embraced technological boldness in scope and vision, thereby elevating the recognition of their duty and civic responsibility to provide drinking water to its citizens.

Throughout the 19th century, the FWW underwent a number of iterations in its operations and structure to adjust to the continued growth of the city and to adapt to the opportunities for newer technologies that respected the tidal nature of the river itself. The FWW replaced its steam powered pumps and boilers with waterwheels and ultimately with turbines. The FWW itself expanded along the riverbank to accommodate these technologies, its active footprint growing from the original Engine House into the Old Mill House and finally with the construction of the Fairmount Dam, added the New Mill House in 1858, linked to the mound of the dam to take advantage of the seemingly boundless supply of water welling behind it. Finally, the creation of Fairmount Park, with its land purchased as public park land, was Philadelphia’s early efforts for watershed protection. Thus, the Fairmount Water Works had become the model of a water-supply system for growing urban areas in the United States and abroad.

Yet, by the end of the 19th century, the pollution from industries and sewers rendered the Schuylkill River undrinkable, with cholera and typhoid epidemics becoming an ongoing occurrence. Because the FWW lacked available land to expand to include newer, early 20th century technologies such as filtration and chlorination, the FWW closed as a drinking water facility.
Yet the Fairmount Water Works was an iconic structure, always beautiful and much beloved by citizens, and recognized as a major urban heritage in the 20th century. Today it is the home of the Philadelphia Water Department’s environmental education center – the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center (FWWIC) – and soon to be the home of the Ed Grusheski Water Literacy Foundation.

Ed recognized the importance of good – public and professional – water literacy as essential for ensuring, in each market, sound technical capacity and infrastructure, as well as good democratic governance as part of our communal and global existence. The teaching of water literacy, using history and topography, has been a major mission of the FWWIC for well over two decades. Water literacy implies a well-developed understanding of water not only as a basic human right but also as a professional domain, and overall, as an invaluable resource which keeps economies humming. We believe that good access to safe drinking water and sanitation is the backbone of civilization, whether in urban or rural settings. But water is much more than access. Water defines and shapes healthy ecosystems, recreation, economies, transportation and tourism. Water carves out the natural forms of our lands and is the primary criterion in the development of our urban centers and infrastructures. 

[cartoons — Philadelphia Record circa 1937]

Purpose of the Presentation

Our Goal is to serve as a shoutout to communities throughout the world to create water literacy assessments and education models for peoples of all ages and across many disciplines — encouraging them to use of their own histories, ecological transitions and particulars of their own infrastructures, market sizes and governance models. To impart this understanding, the FWWIC, through the use of water literacy models, illustrates the role that sewerage and wastewater systems have played in shaping Philadelphia into the city that it is today.

The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) historians and educators, in collaboration with universities and governmental agencies, have created a series of public presentations that trace the history of Philadelphia’s water supply and treatment, wastewater/stormwater collection and treatment and how the evolution of this infrastructure transformed our earlier colonial city into the urban commercial and cultural center that it is today. Archival photographs, newspaper articles, engineering and architectural plans and human stories are the hallmarks of FWWIC education. The story encompasses Philadelphia’s early 19th century water supply experiment, it’s remarkable nearly one hundred year run supplying public water at the Fairmount Water Works, its adoption and implementation of modern water and wastewater treatment infrastructure throughout the 20th century, and its commitment to research and continual innovation to tackle 21st century challenges to safe drinking water and clean waterways.

At the FWWIC we go further than stories of the past to address current challenges and imagine the future of water. Despite the remarkable progress made by PWD and utilities around the world through watershed protection, innovative water treatment technologies, green stormwater infrastructure and ecological restoration, we all face persistent challenges to ensure our affordability to customers and our resiliency. The global threats of such issues as climate change, unregulated contaminants found in our source waters, combined sewer overflows, and flood management, are examples of modern concerns that all water utilities must embrace and deconstruct. We believe that the story we have to tell can serve as a replicable global education model via an exchange of ideas and lessons learned. The Philadelphia Water Department has indeed made promotion of water literacy across the full spectrum a cornerstone of its governing mission of providing safe water and managing storm/waste water to the whole of its constituency.

[photo credit Fairmount Water Works website]

The Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center (FWWIC)

The FWWIC is the Philadelphia Water Department’s environmental education center. It is a regional and national destination for innovative water and watershed education programming. People of all ages and backgrounds, learn about the region’s urban watershed ecosystem, sustainable technologies that improve water quality and how to take action to protect land and water resources. RE-commissioning the buildings of the FWW, the FWWIC opened in 2003 as the education center for the Philadelphia Water Department. The FWWIC has become a hub for STEM and environmental education, scientific research, and community engagement. FWWIC is uniquely positioned to serve teachers and schools equitably throughout Philadelphia because the urban watershed connects each school with locally relevant watershed projects in and around their own neighborhoods.

More than 25,000 adults, 20,000 families and more than 7,000 school-aged children are served by the FWWIC’s programs and exhibits each year. There is no barrier to access as there is no admission fee and the site is completely ADA compliant. Moreover, the FWWIC works with institutes of higher learning and NGOs to provide internships, research opportunities, and lectures.
The FWWIC ‘s commitment to water literacy and place-based education has grown and flourished. As a field trip experience, education programming at the Fairmount Water Works was innovative and creative from the start. This site, designated as both a National Historic Landmark and National Engineering Landmark, offers a unique and powerful setting for students to experience firsthand the dynamic ecosystem of the river, the evidence-based exploration of the technological innovations responsible for creating a successful drinking water system and discovery of cutting-edge architectural design in the context of the early Republic. On Earth Day 2015, as a testament to the innovative education accomplishments, the FWWIC received the Dr. Ruth Patrick Excellence in Education Award. It was presented to the Center for vision and leadership in educating citizens about Philadelphia’s urban watershed – its past, present and future – and collaborating with partners to instill an appreciation for the connections between our daily lives and the natural environment.

Understanding one’s connections to the source and quality of water is critical to the sustainability of this finite resource. From the beginning, FWWIC field trips focus on one of many themed lesson offerings and are interactive, interdisciplinary and skills-based. Students explore the relationship of land development and water quality, the history of drinking water and waste water systems, as well as individual and collective impacts on the regional water source—the rivers. Cross-disciplinary themes include technology and engineering, streams to sewers, green stormwater infrastructure, point-source and non-point source pollution. Finally, our urban watershed story will be enriched as we contrast our history with the developmental stories in other watersheds across the nation and across the world.

by Patrick Cairo, Christiaan Morssink and Joanne Dahme