Last week, we asked Philadelphia to “imagine a day without water,” joining a conversation that communities across the nation engaged in on October 23 thanks to The Value of Water Campaign—an ongoing effort to highlight the real need for infrastructure investment and source water protection.
That made us wonder: since the first homes and factories enjoyed the modern marvel of water-on-demand, what’s the closest we’ve come to having no water?
In the Beginning...
Since 1801, when Philadelphia began providing water for domestic use, street-cleaning and firefighting, the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers—our source of water then and now—have suffered through many drastic droughts.
But, no matter how low the rivers have fallen, we always managed to keep the water flowing.
During some droughts, especially in recent years, non-essential uses, including washing cars, watering lawns, and water-intensive industrial processes, have been curtailed.
The longest drought to hit the city lasted through a better part of a decade, spanning 1961-67. Here, an August 1930 spread in the Philadelphia Inquirer shows a very dry Schuykill at the Flat Rock Dam above Roxborough:
While these events strained the supply, the Delaware River and planning helped keep drinking water available. Water for essential public health purposes (human hydration and cleanliness) has, fortunately, been rather reliable in modern times.
The only times Philadelphians ever suffered without water—sometimes a day or so, other times only a few hours—is when water pipes/mains break. Not every break causes a stoppage of flow, and most stoppages only affect small areas of the city for a limited amount of time.
That reliability of service is due in large part to intentional, engineered redundancy—making sure we have more than one way to pipe water to any neighborhood. When a break cuts off one route, it usually doesn’t take long for water to be rerouted through another pipe.
Today, our crews can usually restore water within eight hours after a main break.
In the Philadelphia Water Dept. Historical Collection, we have a 1920s-era scrapbook of water-related newspaper articles that provide an interesting perspective on living without water.
Reporters then called these brief stoppages “water famines,” a sensational, attention-grabbing term that is laughable today when we consider climate change or the very real water-shortage threats we see western states facing or look to parts of the world where potable water has never been abundant or reliable.
“Water Main Break in West Philadelphia – Early Morning Burst Forces Hundreds to Go to Work Unwashed – Coffee Pots Are Useless,” read a headline in the Public Ledger on November 5, 1921.
The report continued: “There was no water for washing or shaving or to fill the coffee pot this morning in a large area of West Philadelphia, as the result of a burst water main at Fifty-second and Brown streets.” Residents “had to go to work with dirty hands and faces,” and drink hot milk that morning instead of coffee.
The break occurred at 5:30 a.m. ... and by the evening, water service was restored.
A December 12, 1922, story in the Public Ledger about “twelve hours of enforced drought resulting from a break in a thirty-inch water main” stated that “the much-harassed householders who last night were deprived of their water when most homes were getting ready for dinner had a short supply in time for breakfast.”
Even when a huge, 60-inch main break caused a “water famine” for about half the city on January 10, 1923, the problem didn’t last more than a day.
More of concern from that break (and many others before then and to this day) were the buildings that were flooded before the broken main was located and water cut off.
The Inquirer reported that the cellars of many houses were flooded, along with 10 factories in Frankford. These businesses had to be shut down temporarily, resulting in the loss of a week’s pay for thousands of employees.
So, if there’s a lesson to be learned from history, it is very similar to the one stressed by The Value of Water Campaign: the best way to avoid a day (or days) without water is to invest in and maintain the infrastructure that brings us this precious resource.