**Article originally published in the April 2018 edition of Outlook newsletter. 

That was the question of the evening when Perry Decola, General Manager of Environmental Services for the City of Belleville, gave his presentation on the history of drinking water and Belleville’s drinking water in particular. Perry began his talk by indicating that as far back as 1500 BC, the Greeks and Egyptians filtered their water to remove suspended particles. The medieval Venetians used sand for this purpose. However, in the early days of Belleville, people took their water directly and unfiltered from the Bay of Quinte. Over the years, industrial, agricultural and population activities caused the quality of the Bay water to degrade, which in turn necessitated changes to the treatment of that water.

Speaker Perry Decola explained the theory of treatments by using audience participation at the presentation. 

Photo by Doug Knutson

The first water supply system for the City of Belleville, which pumped water from the Bay via steam pumps located at the present site of the Water Treatment Plant, was constructed by an American firm in 1886–87 and operated by them as a private enterprise. This initial system, composed of 16 miles of mains, valves and hydrants, cost $225,000, and its primary purpose was to provide fire protection. By 1899, the City of Belleville purchased the waterworks at a cost of $184,000, making it a public utility. 

In 1911, the first electric pump was installed and by 1912 the system had been extended to 17 miles of mains, 230 hydrants and 2300 services, all made out of galvanized iron pipe. Water rates were both flat rates and metered rates. It cost the average homeowner $5 per year, but if you had a bathroom, you paid $7. Metered rates were 10 to 30 cents per 1,000 gallons. In 1918, the system was fully electrified, with four additional electric pumps installed, but that didn’t solve all the problems. The basic issue with water is this: in wine there is Truth; in beer there is Strength, but in water there is Bacteria! It wasn’t until 1919 that the City first started to treat its water with chlorine which was not universally accepted, but was a necessary evil to prevent mass illness from contaminated water. 

Once the water was safer to consume, more demand followed, so in 1923, a 30-inch raw water intake pipe made of 30-inch riveted steel pipe in 30-foot lengths was constructed. By 1922, the average amount of water being pumped per day was almost 2 million gallons. Increased demand led to an enlarged pump house in 1924, but it was soon recognized that, although there was chlorine for treatment, further efforts were required to improve the quality of the water. So, in 1929, a filtration plant was begun and completed by 1931. This new plant had a capacity of 4 million gallons a day, with a clear well storage of 250,000 gallons. It was realized that the population of Belleville would continue to grow, so provisions were made in the substructure to double the filter capacity—a very wise move! To the delight of all present, Perry used audience participation to illustrate the four processes involved in the filtration process: coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation and finally the straining process. 

He noted it was February of 1937— just over eighty years ago—that the City established the Public Utility Commission by amalgamating the Belleville Waterworks, the Belleville Gas Works and the HydroElectric Commission. From this time on, employees worked on a 24-hour shift rotation basis. But it was only in 1938 that the City installed a telephone service to the water plant! 

By this time, the earliest parts of the original water plant were starting to need serious remediation. The 1950s saw major improvements to the four original filter boxes and the facility itself with the addition of an office for the superintendent, additional filters and a lower level, high lift diesel pump. In December of 1956, a new silo-style elevated water storage tank came into service which replaced the original 1887 standpipe. 

The years 1958 and 1959 saw the addition of two new settling basins and four micro strainers. In addition, a 2-inch water service for water truck sales was installed to deliver water to outlying rural areas and homes with new swimming pools. Further expansion of pumps and filters continued in the 1960s. This expansion was important because it allowed the city to grow, which it did rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s. 

However, although the City increased its ability to pump water, the water pipe sizes did not increase, so even with all the extra horsepower, the actual rate of water flow did not improve because of what is called “friction loss.” It was not uncommon in this era for major plants to call to see if they could have a specific amount of water pumped their way for a given project that day! The only way to solve this problem was to increase the diameter of the primary transmission water mains themselves, which the City embarked on in the mid-1960s. This new 24-inch primary main carried more water than the 16- and 18-inch mains combined! As a result of this increased water flow, the City saw over 40 major developments occur in the 1960s. 

In the 1970s, the east end 2.5-million gallon Pine Street Reservoir was built to accommodate east end residential and industrial development. Also in 1975, a 36-inch intake pipe was constructed to bring more water into the Treatment Plant by the Bay. 

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the Thurlow Pumping Station on Adam St. was completed, which enabled water to be pumped to the Cannifton area. In 1992, a line to Rossmore provided city water, and a Zebra mussel intake system was installed to counteract the restriction in water flow caused by millions of Zebra mussels attaching themselves to the openings of the intake pipes. 

But the major change came in 1991 when the decision was made by the City to rehabilitate and modernize the Water Treatment Plant. It was struggling to treat the water of the Bay of Quinte, which by that time had become one of the most serious hot spots in the Lake Ontario region. The initial problem was space, which was solved when the city reclaimed 5 hectares of the Bay of Quinte on which to build its new plant. The other problem was how to build a new plant, while not shutting off the existing one! So, the designers figured a way to build around the existing plant, and once the new parts were operational, to redesign the older section for new functions. The 1990s also saw the building of the North Park Reservoir which lies below the geranium Canada Flag facing the 401. 

In May of 2000, the Walkerton water fiasco occurred and everything changed in the field of water treatment. New stringent systems were mandated. But Belleville had been ahead of the curve in committing to the $42-million project which would see the official opening of the Gerry O’Connor Water Treatment Plant in May 2001. This state-of-the-art facility has enough capacity to double the size of Belleville, and build as much north of the 401 as presently is below it. At present the Belleville Water Treatment Plant uses only about one-third of its capacity. However, even with this new plant, there is always more work to do. In 2010, one of the valves in the primary transmission main failed, and the city lost 2 million litres of water a day. Obviously that could not continue for more than 36 hours, so another major project was approved. The City installed the Northeast Industrial feeder main from the Water Treatment Plant 6.5 km through the city to just east of the Veterans Memorial Bridge, allowing for easier and unfettered water flow to the city’s northeast boundaries. 

People in Belleville can rest assured that their drinking water is of excellent quality and safe to drink, and that the Water Treatment facility and employees are strict adherents of an ISO-like standards system, the basis of which is to be “better, stronger and faster.” Following the presentation, there was a lengthy question-and-answer period.