Geographical Society of Philadelphia

Water Conservation: THEN and NOW

by Alyce Stick and Amy Shelanski, GEO’s Board Members

Ideas on water conservation, knowledge of the subject, and efforts to effect beneficial change have evolved considerably over the past hundred years. This two-part article illustrates that while as long ago as 1912, members of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia were deeply concerned about and strong advocates for the future of our water supply, today, educational programs abound in Philadelphia to raise public awareness of the need for conservation.


Excerpts from “THE CONSERVATION OF WATER IN PENNSYLVANIA” By Farley Gannett (Engineer, Water Supply Commission of Pennsylvania).
Originally published in the Bulletin of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia, 1912. Edited by Alyce Stick. (The full text can be read on GEO’s website).

“Conservation is intelligent and beneficial utilization, according to which definition the conservation of the water supply of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania means its best and fullest use, for the purpose to which any particular stream or river may be adapted. It does not mean the use of a stream for water power which is required and needed for water supply to a greater extent than for water power; it does not mean the holding of a stream, unused, in contemplation of its future employment by a water company or municipality, while at the same time another nearby community may be suffering for an immediate supply from this stream; and it does not mean the hoarding of all the water in one stream until the arrival of some possible condition of circumstances which might in the future require its use at one point for water supply purposes, while at the same time the stream would offer attractive results from immediate water power or some other form of development. ”“In order, therefore, to effect true utilization of the waters of the commonwealth, it is necessary to be familiar not only with the available streams and the water which is carried thereby, but with present and probable future economic conditions. The proper adjustment of the one to the other must be the aim of the conservationist.”“Not a great deal has appeared in print heretofore regarding this subject in Pennsylvania, and unfortunately, there are those who do not know and therefore cannot appreciate, the extent of the work done by the state organizations which are conserving the waters. In 1905 two acts were passed by the legislature, one to preserve the purity of the water supplies, and the other to distribute and regulate the utilization of the streams.

To the State Health Department and the Water Supply Commission was delegated the duty of carrying out the provisions of these acts, and these two departments of the state government have been inactive and efficient operation for nearly seven years, and have accomplished practical results. ““Water should be conserved for six purposes; or, in other words, in controlling the utilization of water, the question must be examined from six standpoints; namely,

(1) for water supply,

(2) for waterpower,

(3) for navigation,

(4) for the control of floods,

(5) for agriculture, and

(6) for the preservation of natural scenic beauties.

The practical utilitarian generally will omit the sixth consideration, and from the standpoint of the State Water Supply Commission the other five have been conceded to have greater prominence if conflict should arise.”“

Streams as Waste Carriers.—There is one use to which the streams of Pennsylvania have been quite largely devoted, and which it is held is not a proper purpose for which to utilize them; that is the carrying, in unrestricted quantity, the waste from factories and mills, culm from mines, ashes and other refuse from cities and unpurified sewage. The commission is doing what it can to prevent the dumping of unnecessary wastes into the streams, and the Department of Health is likewise preventing the discharge of sewage in an unpurified state therein.”“At the basis of water conservation in general and certainly in Pennsylvania, is storage, and this fact cannot be too often repeated or too much emphasized. Whether for water supply, water power, navigation, or for the reduction of floods, storage is the ultimate consideration. Through storage in reservoirs alone can the ultimate utilization of the streams be accomplished and we certainly see benefits being derived from it. “


PHILADELPHIA WATER CONSERVATION Conservation (ethic), an ethic of use, protection, and management of the environment and natural resources – WikipediaFrom Wiktionary

  1. The act of preserving, guarding, or protecting; the keeping (of a thing) in a safe or entire state; preservation.
  2. Wise use of natural resources. quotations 
    • 1913, Robert Barr, chapter 4, in Lord Stranleigh Abroad‎

“My father had ideas about conservation long before the United States took it up. […] You preserve water in times of flood and freshet to be used for power or for irrigation throughout the year. …” According to Merriam Webster: A careful preservation and protection of something especially: planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.How things have changed and how things have remained the same. Water is critical to life. We need it to sustain our bodies, our food, the animals we depend upon, the electricity we cannot live without, the clean removal of waste, the joy we take in the beauty of our natural world. We have become much smarter about our use of water, but sadly, recently, we have also become less ethical in its use. Philadelphia is a fortunate city as we have abundant streams, rivers and groundwater. We have a municipal water department that is dedicated to providing safe drinking water to residents. It’s always been a complicated process. Water departments need to prioritize water use – that was true in 1912 and still is true now. 

What seems most different now is the public involvement in water conservation, sustainability, and ethical use of natural resources. Our society is now able at a click to obtain comprehensive information about everything. The Philadelphia Water Department has resources that didn’t exist a century ago. Technology for the treatment of wastewater and sewage didn’t exist. Raw sewage was washed into our rivers and streams. Increased population from the waves of immigration in the early 1900s made the problem worse. New industries poured pollutants into our waters. Today, relaxed regulations on industry along with political maneuvering have led to water disasters like the one in Flint, Michigan. Philadelphia tries to do better. In addition to the many dedicated people who work to keep our drinking water safe, the water department runs innovative programs to increase public awareness about the role of the public in keeping our water clean. Many public schools now have water gardens that beautify the school grounds and teach children how things like rainwater run-off, gardening and keeping sewer access clear are necessary to keep our water clean. This year the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary has taken over the Spokesdog Contest in conjunction with the Morris Animal Refuge. The Spokesdog Contest is a clever and fun way to bring home the importance of picking up dog waste. All the dogs competing this year are available for adoption at the Morris Refuge, but the larger purpose of this contest is to educate the public about the importance of cleaning up after pet waste.  

Contrary to popular opinion, dog waste is not environmentally friendly, nor is it a fertilizer. Dog poop is a pollutant, and it spreads whenever rain falls or snow melts. Waste that stays on the ground can leech into the earth. It can also run off into storm drains and nearby waterways, like the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. Not only does this spread harmful bacteria, but also it breeds algae that can kill local fish.

The Philadelphia Water Department and the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary provide many educational programs for children and adults.

The City’s water website provides a massive amount of information and links to all things water. As citizens, we must take responsibility for our actions and activities. We can’t survive without water so we must give it all the care we can. We’ve come a long way since 1912. Our sewage is treated; our drinking water is clean and readily available. We’ve worked to keep streams and rivers free of pollutants. We need to keep fighting for clean water and areas of natural beauty. Children need to be taught the value of water and the means to protect our most vital natural resource. Perhaps it was best, and most succinctly stated by Leonardo DaVinci a long time ago – “Water is the driving force of all nature.”