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The History of Arlington’s Drinking Water System

by ARLnow.com January 12, 2012 at 10:39 am 5,595 46 Comments

Did you know that Arlington’s drinking water actually comes from the District of Columbia? And that when the county’s first drinking water system was completed residents held a big parade with elaborate floats in Clarendon?

Those are two of the interesting historical facts recently brought to light in an article on drinking water in the county’s Ballston Pond Blog. That article, written by county employee Jen McDonnell, is reprinted here with permission.

Arlington has three, separate pipe systems running underground that handle our three types of water – drinking (potable), wastewater, and stormwater. But there was a time in Arlington (not that long ago) when these pipe systems were not in place. In 1900, wells were the drinking water source for Arlingtonians, and outhouses and septic tanks “managed” the wastewater.

In 1926, the Arlington Board of Supervisors funded a study to devise a plan to bring a drinking water system to Arlington. The study findings recommended that Arlington connect to the Army Corp of Engineers-operated drinking water filtration plant that pulled water from the Potomac River for the District of Columbia’s residents. In 1926, Congress passed two acts that made this proposed plan possible. The first act authorized the sale of water from the federal supply to Arlington and the second act approved the connection of Arlington County to the federal supply. Virginia’s General Assembly then approved bonds to fund this major project. A water main was constructed from the Dalecarlia Plant in Washington D.C., across Chain Bridge, and then along Glebe Road. Infrastructure including pumps and pumping stations were installed and initially 340 homes were connected. Construction cost $636,110.

When the new drinking water system became operational, a big parade with elaborate floats was held in Clarendon. Arlingtonians wore buttons saying, “YES We Have Water.” The new, easy access to water encouraged change and growth in Arlington. In the post-WWI era, housing became denser around the available water connections. Easy water access encouraged the use of larger quantities of water, and increased the quantities of wastewater produced. While the drinking water system has been significantly expanded since then, Arlington still gets its drinking water from the Potomac River and the Dalecarlia Plant today.

An equally interesting history of the county’s wastewater system has also been posted on the Ballston Pond Blog.

  • sue

    Yep. We get all of the Lead and poisonous chemicals from the DC water supply!

  • Lou

    When was it, sometime in the early 90’s when that pipe under Chain Bridge cracked? It was on the news, and by the time I got up to Safeway all the bottled water was already sold out.

  • Good Grief

    Ahh.. now I know why Four Mile Run is always contaminated!

  • North Pershing Drive

    It was created by General Montgomery Meigs, later the quarter master General for the Union during the civil war. He also build the dome on the capital. In fact, the Meigs family has served and continues to serve in the Jefferson inspired Army Corps of Engineers since the revolutionary war.

    Here’s a great book that tells about it: http://www.amazon.com/American-Future-History-Simon-Schama/dp/0060539232

    • Josh S

      Yeah, the story of Meigs and his family is really fascinating stuff.

      • Tell Me, Clarice…

        What did Meigs say to you when you passed his cell?

  • We have this wonderful infrastructure, but all the frat boy yuppies still like to piss in the street and yards.

  • Tre

    Just reading that the Potomac is a source of my drinking water is disturbing…. luckily my trusty GE fridge converts that sludge into glacier water

    • drax

      There’s a reason the intake is upstream of the city.

      • Filthy Anyway

        Doubt that matters too much. There are other sources of major pollution upstream. Wastewater plants, industrial plant discharges, agricultural runoff. Dalecarlia better be running smooth as a top.

        • madisonmanor

          You are correct. There are large parts of the Shenandoah where they recommend you don’t eat the fish because of the toxins in the fish and water. And the Shenandoah flows right into the Potomac – upstream of the city.

        • drax

          It matters alot, but you’re right, upstream water is hardly clean and pure. Upstream is cow poop, downstream is human poop mixed with cow poop.

          • madisonmanor

            and soon to be mixed with chicken poop. . .

          • And DC rat poop.

    • CourthouseChris

      Could be worse, LA’s water source is downstream of *everything*

      http://www.lasewers.org/treatment_plants/tillman/index.htm

    • Josh S

      Where would you think that it comes from? The sky?

      Drinking water systems clean water before pumping it to your house. It’s equally safe to drink as any bottled water.

      • Tre

        Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.

      • drax

        Well, Josh, yes, but not always.

  • drax

    If we tried to build this today, Republicans would call it wasteful spending.

    • Quoth the Raven

      That’s because the Dems would manage to design a system that costs millions more than it should and takes 15 years to finish.

      • Chi

        Funny thing is, in 1926 is was most likely Republicans on the board who built this in the first place!

        • DarkHeart

          The same way Abe Lincoln would be a Democrat today.

        • drax

          I can’t find a source, but I seriously doubt there were any Republicans on the board in 1926.

      • Josh S

        Hilarious. As if political parties are responsible for designing drinking water systems.

        • drax

          They’re responsible for authorizing and paying for them.

      • drax

        That’s the excuse they’d use maybe.

  • Swag

    I recently started using only distilled water in my humidifier because I hated having to clean out the sludge that was left behind (and chip off all the build-up on the coil) and couldn’t stand the smell.

    Filtered tap water tastes fine (though it leaves you wondering what didn’t get filtered), but I’d never drink it straight.

    • Josh S

      I imagine that were you to take a blind test, you wouldn’t be able to detect any difference between tap water and bottled water. And it’s a lot cheaper. And doesn’t waste energy.

      If tap water weren’t safe to drink, you’d know about it.

      • Quoth the Raven

        Not to mention stopping tons upon tons of plastic bottles ending up in landfills and rivers…

      • BernardB

        Some bottled water is tap water. However, some bottled water is membrane filtered water, and then has added minerals specifically for taste. Those waters taste so much better than tap water and are likely better for you. All are likely safe.

        Recycle your plastic and don’t throw it on the ground.

        • sue

          Except the plastics from the bottles are making kids start puberty at a much younger age….and don’t forget the man boobs.

      • Loocy

        Noooo. While it may be “safe to drink”, the taste is very different. I usually get RO filtered water but when I run out and have to use tap water, it tastes terrible since I’m so used to the lovely filtered stuff!

      • Swag

        Never said it wasn’t safe–just that I wouldn’t drink it.

    • BernardB

      That’s a pricey option. I’d rather clean the scale.

      • Swag

        $1 a gallon which comes out to about $0.70/24hrs, assuming I never turn it off.

        *shrug*

    • drax

      The sludge is either minerals from the water – which are good for you and make the water taste better than pure water – or microbes that only grew in it once the water got into the humidifier.

  • Tired, but still voting in January

    I like this story. It also helps push the Melissa Bondi story farther down the page so folks can ignore it and the drama dies down.

  • Teeth

    A lot of bottled water does not contain fluoride, tap water on the other hand does contain the necessary fluoride to keep teeth healthy. So in that sense tap water can actually be better for you!

    • DarkHeart

      General Ripper poo-poos fluoridation.

    • That’s why I brush my teeth when I drink bottled water.

  • Always Right

    No wonder there are so many women in Arlington with mustaches!

  • Ra

    I’m extremely sulfite sensitive and almost all water filtration contains sulfites. I have to drink bottled water from the source.

    I’m in my 50’s and from DC and remember the water tasting pretty crappy since childhood. Some days the chlorination and chemicals are so bad my shower smells like Chlorox.

    Wishing our upstream source was less polluted.

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