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Where Does Philly’s Drinking Water Come From?
Water

Where Does Philly’s Drinking Water Come From?

Where does our city water come from, and how does it get to our faucets?

Philadelphia’s water system is one of the oldest in the country. It dates back to 1815, when it was originally serving about 63 homes. Today, Philly uses more than 200 million gallons of water every single day.

So, where do we get our Philly drinking water?

It’s a simple question with two answers. 

Philadelphia gets its water from two rivers: the Delaware River and the Schuylkill River

The Delaware river technically starts in the Catskill Mountains and exits into the Delaware Bay where its waters enter the Atlantic Ocean between New Jersey and Delaware. This river provides the drinking water for fifteen million people, including some communities in New York City. 

Delaware River
The Delaware River

The Schuylkill River begins its headwaters in Tuscarora, PA about 90 miles away from Philadelphia. Schuylkill provides water to two million people. 

Depending on where you live in the city, your water may come from either river.

Philadelphia Water Department has three water treatment plants, the Baxter Plant, Queen Lane Plant and Belmont Plant. Located in Torresdale, the Baxter Plant cleans water from the Delaware. Both the Queen Lane (East Falls) and Belmont (Wynnefield) plants source water from the Schuylkill.

This map from Philadelphia Water Department’s Water Quality Report 2019 shows which plants serve which areas of the city:

Is water from the Delaware and the Schuylkill the same?

“Drinking water quality across the City is essentially the same, except that water from the Schuylkill River is slightly “harder” than water from the Delaware River,” said Laura Copeland, a Public Information Officer with the Philadelphia Water Department. 

According to Copeland, the preference for a harder or ‘softer” water has nothing to do with health or quality. According to Copeland, “water hardness depends on the concentration of minerals dissolved in the water from rocks through and over which the water has flowed.” 

What about water quality?

When you heard that our water comes from the Delaware and the Schuylkill, you may have thought ‘yuck!’ How can we drink the water from a river we aren’t even supposed to swim in

The good news is that the water doesn’t go straight from the river to your faucet.  Before it even reaches your home, it goes through seven treatment steps, including gravity settling, disinfection, coagulation & flocculation, gravity settling again, disinfection again, filtration, and then final treatment.

“The average time it takes for drinking water to travel from the river to our customers’ faucets is more than four days. About one day is spent at one of our three drinking water treatment plants, and the other three days take place in finished water reservoirs and water mains,” said Copeland. 

Is Philly water safe? 

According to the City, yes, the water is safe to drink. Copeland said that “Philadelphia’s water meets or exceeds all water quality standards.”

According to other sources, there are some contaminants, like PFAS. 

In the beginning of this year, The Environmental Working Group said that Philadelphia’s water exceeded safe PFAS levels. The City and local experts questioned the report, stating that EWG’s report only included one sample from Philadelphia’s water supply, not a long-term study. 

However, contaminants like PFAS should be monitored in the future. Unsafe PFAS levels have been found across the as nation. 

If the water is safe, why does it taste bad?

The taste of Philly water may not always be a fan fav, like when it came in second to last during an Inquirer blind taste test.. But bad taste doesn’t necessarily mean that the water is unsafe to drink. The city’s website states that a musty taste isn’t bad for you, that it’s a harmless odor that comes from a specific algae bloom. If you’re tasting chlorine, that’s because there is a low level of chlorine added to water to disinfect it. 

What about lead?

Philly’s water doesn’t have lead in it. However, that doesn’t mean that your home’s water is free of lead, because your pipes could be contaminated. 

Copeland said that “[Philly’s] top-quality tap does not contain lead and we treat water to prevent lead plumbing corrosion. But every resident should know what their plumbing is made of and check for a lead water service line.” 

Want to find out if your pipes are made out of lead? Read our previous story for a free DIY test and find out about the Philadelphia Water Department’s other lead replacement programs.   


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Katie Rodgers
Katie Rodgers is a writer based on the East Coast working as an editorial intern for Green Philly. She's interested in sustainability, environmental activism, and documentary media. Before coming to Green Philly, Katie interned at WHYY. View all posts by Katie Rodgers

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