From Lake to Tap: Become a Surface Water Pro in a Snap

You turn on the faucet, and water comes out. You flush the toilet, and a new pool of water appears as soon as the previous one is gone.

We’re used to water being available on demand, but rarely do we stop to ask a crucial question: Where does that water come from, anyway?

It’s a valid question—and one that we’re going to address throughout a yearlong series we’re launching today called Aquastructure. From water purification to the infrastructure improvements on systems both existing and new, we want to demystify the operations and structures through which clean, reliable water is delivered to the homes of our customers. With Aquastructure, we will show you, literally, the structure of Aqua.

So, back to my toilet…

Right. The water that was there before you flushed—and the water that reappears seconds later—comes to your home after undergoing a series of treatment processes, but it originally comes from either the ground or a surface body of water, such as a lake, river or reservoir.

We asked Jim Barbato, director of corporate engineering at Aqua, to help explain how Aqua utilizes these surface water sources to withdraw “raw” water from lakes, rivers, streams and reservoirs. (Fresh water is collected from these sources and then screened to remove fish, leaves and debris—a.k.a. all the things you definitely don’t want coming out of your faucets.)

What’s the difference between gathering water from these sources as opposed to the ground?

“Well, surface water requires more treatment and barriers, such as filtration, to protect public health from harmful waterborne contaminants,” Barbato says.

Okay, so there’s more stuff in untreated surface water before it goes through the purification process. That makes sense.

He broke down some of the numbers when it comes to sourcing: Out of the total amount of surface water that Aqua treats per day, about 20 percent (30 million gallons) comes from reservoirs. The other 80 percent (112 million gallons) of surface water treated per day comes from rivers and/or lakes.

Moving on: After surface water is sourced, coagulants are added to the water and cause dirt and other particles to stick together so that they can be removed.

Okay… Coagu-whats? Barbato to the rescue.

“Coagulants are special water treatment chemicals that are added to the water to cause the particles in the water to adhere to one another, making them heavy enough to settle into a basin from which the sediment is removed,” he says, adding that Aqua utilizes several different coagulants, one of which is aluminum sulfate (alum).

Got it. What next?

To put it simply: a lot. The next few steps of the surface water treatment process may seem quite similar, but we can assure you that they’re all essential to ensuring clean water. Let’s take a closer look.

  • Getting settled: After contact with the coagulants, larger particles sink to the bottom of the tanks so they can be removed.
  • Filter, filter, filter: The water then goes on a fun little journey through filters of anthracite (a coal-like mineral), sand and gravel to remove even smaller particles.
  • Living the chlorine dream: Next, chlorine is added to disinfect the water and eliminate any potentially harmful organisms. See ya later, bacteria! 
  • Final treatment: The end is in sight as sodium hydroxide, lime or additional custom treatments are added to adjust the pH (acidity level) of the water before it makes its grand debut as clean, drinkable water in your home.

You might be wondering: Do all of these steps take place at the same facility, or are they spread out between the water source and the final destination?

The answer is a little of both. Barbato notes that while sometimes the source water intake structure may be remote from the main treatment plant, the rest of the treatment process typically happens at the same facility. The more you know!

So how does Aqua keep my water safe?

Providing clean water to you, our customers, is at the core of what we do. And we take plenty of steps to ensure that we’re able to do exactly that.

Many of Aqua’s surface water treatment plants participate in the American Water Works Association’s Partnership for Safe Water, which exists to improve the quality of water delivered to customers by optimizing water system operations. By participating in the program, utilities such as Aqua demonstrate a commitment to protecting public health and providing exceptional water quality to customers.

Participating in the partnership is no walk in the park, though! Barbato let us know that plants must demonstrate water quality results that meet all regulatory requirements in order to be involved. Only about 200 water utilities across the country participate in the partnership, and you bet that Aqua is proud to be one of them. 

Clean, safe water is what it’s all about.

On top of that, Aqua’s five largest surface water treatment plants in Pennsylvania—Neshaminy, Ingram’s Mill, Pickering East, Pickering West and Shenango—all employ an early event detection technology that monitors outside factors to surface water sources. That means that if a large storm or a seasonal shift changes the input of surface water in the sourcing process, plant engineers are well-equipped to detect and manage these changes.

Cool. Anything else I should know?

You’ll remember that not all of Aqua’s water comes from surface sources—plenty comes from the ground, and we’ll cover that process in our next Aquastructure feature. In meantime, make sure you're signed up for WaterSmart alerts so you never miss a beat about changes to your water service.

We’ll see you back here next month. Stay hydrated, stay warm and stay ready to learn! 

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