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Philadelphia’s status as one of the first-developed cities in America is what gives it an unparalleled historical charm — but it also means the city that William Penn founded has REALLY started to show its age over the past several decades.

That age is largely evident in the city’s 200-year-old water pipe system and the infrastructure that surrounds how this city drinks. Now, the Philadelphia Water Department is tasked with inspecting and maintaining more than 3,000 miles of mains that are springing leaks, as literally millions of dollars’ worth of water drips away.

The problem

The average age of a water main in the city is 78 years, and the average age of a wastewater pipe is around 100 years — and while the Water Department claims age ain’t nothing but a number in determining a loss of efficiency, it can be a factor.

Newsworks reported last month that though Philadelphia’s Water Department has made great strides over the last several decades to decrease leakage, the city still has the third-highest leakage rate in the Delaware River Basin of the 50 largest cities. Only Wilmington and Camden are worse. Reminder, this is the Delaware River Basin:

Why does it matter? All that leaking water springing out of old pipes is costing customers across the city a total of about $50 million a year in lost revenue and other costs. Every day, about 60 million gallons of water leaks into the ground through old pipes — that water never makes it to the home of the people who are paying for the extraction and transportation of the water. Consequently, they’re paying for water that’s leaking in places they often don’t see.

What the city is doing

The Philadelphia Water Department surveys hundreds of miles of pipes throughout the city to search for leakage every year. Upwards of 1,000 miles of pipeline was surveyed in fiscal year 2013, and the Department replaces about 20 miles worth of water mains and eight miles of sewer pipes every 12 months.

Since 1979, the city has deployed leakage assessment teams that complete ground-level work every day. What do they do? They listen to water flow patterns and find the drips. But even when they find one, that doesn’t mean it’ll be fixed — because of the money involved in replacing all the city’s aging water infrastructure, the department has to be careful which pipes it replaces, as the city needs to get maximum use out of every main before it’s replaced with a new one.

In addition to assessing leakage, the Water Department has a number of programs to maintain the existing infrastructure, including cleaning and maintaining sewers, inlets and catch basins. You can find more information on what the city is doing here.

By the numbers

1815 — Year the Fairmount Water Works began operating

3,000 — Miles of sewers

79,000 — Stormwater inlets

3,000 — Miles of water mains

130 — Number of square miles served by the Philadelphia Water Department

27,700 — Standard pressure fire hydrants

120 — Maximum number of years after water and wastewater pipes should be replaced

100 — Age of drinking water treatment plants

60-87 — Age of wastewater treatment plants

1,900 — Number of jobs at the Philadelphia Water Department

1,130 — Miles of pipeline the department hopes to survey for leakage by the end of fiscal year 2015

8 — Number of hours on average it takes for the department to fix a water main break

100,251 — Number of storm drains cleaned in fiscal year 2013

89,616,000,000 — Gallons of treated water in fiscal year 2013


It was in 1815 when Fairmount Water Works began operating in Philadelphia, serving about 63 homes through wooden water mains that were connected to the reservoir.

Meanwhile, as the population of the city increased in the mid 1800s, the sanitary conditions in the rivers — but more importantly, the streams that connected them — started to quickly deteriorate through pollution.

Disease and bacteria started spreading across the city, so officials began constructing a network of sewers in pre-existing creek beds. When building the system, the city decided to use the natural watershed for drainage purposes, meaning the pipes were built along the small streams that connected the Schuylkill and the Delaware.

The street grid was finished shortly after, and the spread of bacteria and diseases in that manner effectively ended. But what was left was less creeks and streams flowing across and through the city.

According to the Water Department,  only 118 miles of streams still exist today as compared to the 283 that were once used to carry runoff into the river. After that, city planners constructed Fairmount Park so that land around the water source wouldn’t be developed to the same degree as the rest of the city was.

Today, Philadelphia’s water supply system serves a 130-square-mile area to about 1.5 million residents. The water mains are evaluated at least once every several years, and are structured around an extensive point system developed by the department. Generally, areas around Center City (also including North Philly, Old City and parts of South Philly) will need to have water mains replaced first, in part because those are the oldest.

The money

The Philadelphia Water Department has more employees than any other city department, and the mayor proposed sending $367,167,000 to the department in fiscal year 2016 — the water fund also brings in nearly $8 million a year in revenue (which equates to about 0.2 percent of the budget).

While much of the city’s focus is on ensuring clean drinking water gets to homes across the city, it’s also widely concerned with the environmental impact of getting that water from the Schuylkill and the Delaware to your sink. Controlling water pollution is the primary concern.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.