Quench your thirst for knowl­edge about Alexan­dria’s reser­voirs

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - john.kelly@wash­post.com Twit­ter: @johnkelly For pre­vi­ous col­umns, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/ john-kelly.

My wife and I hosted rel­a­tives this sum­mer and one of our stops was the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Ma­sonic Na­tional Me­mo­rial in Alexan­dria, Va. I vis­ited once be­fore, over 30 years ago, and had for­got­ten there is a small reser­voir out back. I’m won­der­ing if you know what the reser­voir’s pur­pose was/is. I also won­der if you know what the brown basin to the reser­voir’s left is.

— Richard Rogers, Kingstowne, Va.

An­swer Man sus­pects that we’re all sick of wa­ter by now, what with this sum­mer’s rain and the re­cent hur­ri­cane. But it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that though we have a sur­feit now, a wa­ter sup­ply can’t al­ways be de­pended upon. That’s why we need reser­voirs.

There are two be­hind the Ma­sonic Me­mo­rial in Alexan­dria and they are very old in­deed. The older of the pair is the one closer to Duke Street. It was com­pleted in 1852 and can hold 3 mil­lion gal­lons of wa­ter. Next to it is a 14mil­lion-gal­lon reser­voir con­structed in 1875.

The larger reser­voir was taken out of ser­vice in 2000, but the 1852 reser­voir is still in use, said Terry Knepp, op­er­a­tions su­per­in­ten­dent for Vir­ginia Amer­i­can Wa­ter, the util­ity that owns the sys­tem.

Knepp knows his H20. He said that be­fore 1850 — when the first pub­lic wa­ter com­pany was char­tered in the city — Alexan­dri­ans got their wa­ter from wells dug about 30 feet into the ground. The prob­lem with shal­low wells is that they are eas­ily con­tam­i­nated.

The so­lu­tion was to build a reser­voir on Shuter’s Hill on what was then the edge of town. Wa­ter came from nearby Cameron Run and from a well dug on-site.

Wa­ter started flowing through the first cast-iron pipes — seven miles of them — on June 15, 1852. Ben­jamin Hal­low­ell, Alexan­dria Wa­ter’s first di­rec­tor, noted that it was rusty at first, but af­ter a few weeks the wa­ter was “very clear and pure, and we think will com­pare, fa­vor­ably, with the wa­ter in­tro­duced into any City in our coun­try.”

The reser­voir it­self be­came an at­trac­tion, noted for its “taste­ful and cred­itable ap­pear­ance.” Its berm-like walls were higher than the sur­round­ing land­scape so wa­ter could be fed by grav­ity through the pipes. (Pumps help move the wa­ter along now.)

Said Hal­low­ell: “From the top of the bank of the Reser­voir, the view of the Po­tomac, and the sur­round­ing scenery, is one not of­ten sur­passed in beauty, and which will well re­pay those who have leisure to make it a visit.”

Alexan­dria never em­ployed the wooden pipes — ba­si­cally hol­lowed-out logs — that other com­mu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing Wash­ing­ton, had.

“Which was great,” Knepp said. “The peo­ple that put [the pipes] in said, ‘I don’t want wooden. I want some­thing that’s go­ing to last for­ever.’ ”

The old­est pipes cur­rently in the Alexan­dria sys­tem were in­stalled about 1885. They’re un­der the blocks of Pey­ton, Payne and Fair­fax streets.

In 1929, Alexan­dria Wa­ter was ac­quired by Amer­i­can Water­works and Elec­tric, the pre­cur­sor to to­day’s owner, Vir­ginia Amer­i­can Wa­ter.

Alexan­dri­ans use 14 mil­lion gal­lons of wa­ter a day. The wa­ter comes from the util­ity’s sib­ling in Fair­fax County, which draws it from two lo­ca­tions — the up­per Po­tomac and the Oc­co­quan. The wa­ter is treated be­fore it comes to Alexan­dria — and af­ter it leaves it, too.

In 1988, the reser­voir site off Duke was des­ig­nated a Wa­ter Land­mark by the Amer­i­can Wa­ter Works As­so­ci­a­tion, which is sort of like a life­time achieve­ment award Os­car.

Both reser­voirs were orig­i­nally open at the top. They were cov­ered in 1979. The orig­i­nal reser­voir — known as Duke Street #2 — has a brown polypropy­lene cover that rises and falls de­pend­ing on the vol­ume of wa­ter in­side. The cover of the 14 mil­lion-gal­lon reser­voir — Duke Street #1 — was re­moved af­ter it was taken out of ser­vice. In the past 18 years, veg­e­ta­tion has grown in places in the basin.

Knepp said a study is un­der­way to de­ter­mine whether there’s any­thing that can go on the site of the dis­used reser­voir. An­swer Man thinks that with those an­gled walls, it would make a sweet velo­drome, per­fect for rac­ers atop penny-far­thing bi­cy­cles of the sort rid­den when the reser­voir was new.

Ques­tions, please

Have a ques­tion about some­thing you’ve seen in the Wash­ing­ton area? Send it to an­swer­man@wash­post.com.


Two reser­voirs near the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Ma­sonic Na­tional Me­mo­rial in Alexan­dria, Va., went into ser­vice in the 1800s.

John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton

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