Happy 100, Evanston! Here's to a Century of Clean Water

Every water plant has a story. But not every water plant has roots in the Great Chicago Fire, cholera outbreaks and a severe typhoid epidemic.
Happy 100, Evanston! Here's to a Century of Clean Water
Evanston's filtration plant went into service in July 1914, providing 12 million gallons of water per day to the city of Evanston. Instances of typhoid and cholera dropped dramatically.

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Editor's Note: The Evanston Water Utility celebrated its 100th birthday on July 26 with an open house. For more information on the water plant's history and the development of safe drinking water in Evanston, visit the city's website. History buffs will find the historical documents and comprehensive timeline fascinating.

The 108-mgd Evanston, Ill., water treatment plant has seen a lot of water pass over its weirs.  And at more than 100 years old, it’s seen a lot of history. In fact, the development of the entire community goes hand-in-hand with improvements in its water treatment plant and system.

Evanston Utilities Director Dave Stoneback knows the story cold.

“In 1870,” he says, “Evanston was a sleepy farming community (on the northern border of Chicago), and had a population of 3,000.”

But that changed quickly following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 when many survivors of the disaster moved to Evanston. Fires played an even larger role in the development of the water system a year later, when two major blazes in Evanston prompted city leaders and residents to explore the development of a water distribution system.

Financing a system
“Evanston and the town of North Evanston merged in 1873 in order to be able to sell bonds to finance a waterworks,” Stoneback says.

Northwestern University gave property to the village, and the pump station was built on the site of the current water treatment plant, taking raw water from Lake Michigan through a 1,200-foot, 16-inch intake. 

Stoneback says Charles J. Gilbert, first president of the village board, led the campaign to create the new waterworks and the 2-mgd pump that ran continuously for the next 17 years was named after him — the C.J. Gilbert. The waterworks project cost $24,000.

Meanwhile, the village of South Evanston had built its own water system, “but their water intake was too close to where they discharged sewage into the lake, so in 1892, they joined the Village of Evanston and connected their distribution systems so that everyone was getting better water,” says Stoneback.

Addressing water quality
Developments in the town drove even more water system improvements. The pumping station was expanded in 1888, and again in 1897 — to 12 mgd. In 1911-12, a typhoid fever epidemic killed one in six persons who contracted the disease. The town began adding hypochlorite of lime as a disinfectant. Stoneback says the outbreak also forced the town to consider extending the raw water intake farther into the lake — to obtain better quality water and reduce icing in winter — or building a filtration plant.

“A water subcommittee appointed by the City Council visited existing water plants in Louisville and New Orleans and came back with proof that drinking filtered water decreased typhoid,” says Stoneback. “In 1912, the City Council hired an engineer, Langdon Pearse, to design the filter plant. Construction began in 1913, and six 2-mgd rapid sand filters went into service in July 1914.”

Evanston began adding chlorine to the water supply in 1921, and built its first elevated storage tank in 1932. In 1947, the city became the first in Illinois to fluoridate its water.

A modern system
Today, the waterworks system supplies water within Evanston, but also to the Village of Skokie, since 1944, and the Northwest Water Commission (comprised of Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Palatine and Wheeling) since 1985. Overall, Evanston supplies potable water to some 350,000 people.

“A unique situation is that Skokie receives its water on a direct pressure system,” says Stoneback. “It’s basically an extension of the Evanston distribution system.”

 The water plant is a conventional surface water treatment plant, and includes rapid mix, flocculation, sedimentation, filtration and disinfection. 

“We are fortunate in that (Lake Michigan) is a very high quality water source,” says Stoneback, “although this sometimes causes problems during the winter when there is very low turbidity, making treating it a challenge.”

Continuous improvements
The distribution system in Evanston consists of 157 miles of mains ranging in size from 3 to 48 inches in diameter. Stoneback explains that more than half of the mains are 80 years or older, and Evanston is engaged in a program to replace about 1.5 miles (1 percent) annually.

That’s not the only improvement program.

“We’ve installed a low-voltage heating system on one of our intakes to mitigate frazil-anchor ice problems which have caused water plant shutdowns in the past," explains Stoneback. The city is in the process of installing a heating system on a second intake.

Evanston is also one of the first communities to have a fixed network automatic meter reading system, installed in 2001. A SCADA system has been in place at Evanston’s treatment plant since 1982, and Evanston has been using an asset management system for its distribution network since 1986.

“Technology can’t replace good people,” Stoneback says, “but it helps them work more safely and efficiently.”


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