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City celebrates 100 years of Lake Montebello water

100 years of Lake Montebello celebrated with festival

In a city that frequently celebrates beer and wine, water had its day in the sun Saturday.

Hundreds flocked to Lake Montebello under blue skies for a festival commemorating the opening 100 years ago of the city's first water filtration plant — a vital component of Baltimore's aging but still functional infrastructure.

Instead of bottled water, thirsty people were offered city water fresh from the tap. City public works employees expressed their liquid passion by wearing T-shirts saying "No Water No Beer" or "No Water No Wine."

In addition to bringing out food trucks, musicians, vintage cars and reptile displays, the event gave Baltimore elected officials and ordinary citizens an opportunity to show their appreciation to the Department of Public Works employees who bring water to 1.8 million residents of the city and surrounding counties.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told a crowd of a few hundred people that public works employees were "the unsung heroes of our city."

"No one realizes the hard work you do around the clock," the mayor said. "This is a 365-day [job], including holidays, 24 hours a day."

The crowd for the mayor's remarks fell well short of the estimated 5,000 who turned out in brutal heat 100 years ago to celebrate the opening of the Lake Montebello filtration plant and to taste the newly purified city water.

According to an account in The Baltimore Sun, Mayor James H. Preston hailed the gathering as "the most important civic event that has taken place in my time."

Preston, a Democrat who served from 1911 to 1919, presided over construction of the project and appointed Ezra B. Whitman as its chief engineer. Whitman, who would go on to become one of the most celebrated civil engineers of his time, told the crowd his boss instructed him to put merit ahead of politics — if he absolutely had to.

"The mayor told me to appoint organization Democrats to places in the department," Whitman said. "He said if I could not find organization Democrats to appoint plain Democrats, and if I could not find plain Democrats to appoint independents and even Republicans."

The cost of the facility, then the second-largest filtration plant in the United States, was estimated at $1.75 million, or about $28.3 million in today's dollars.

There was a reason so many people turned out in 1915 to applaud the plant's opening. Before that, the water that came out of city taps was treated to the standard of the time but was not filtered.

Kurt Kocher, the public works spokesman, said that before filtration water ran directly from Loch Raven Reservoir to Lake Montebello. It was treated with alum at the 1880 gatehouse there before going into Lake Clifton and to its eventual consumers. He said there were frequent complaints about discolored water, bad odors and water-borne illnesses.

Kocher said the addition of filtration for the first time allowed the city to deliver "crystal clear water" from Loch Raven, which had been created in 1881 by damming the Gunpowder River. While filtration helped water clarity, he said, the problem of water-borne bacteria would not be fully solved until the introduction of modern chlorination in the 1920s.

The filtration plant has changed much though the years. A second filtration building was added 90 years ago, and the outdoor sediment ponds where suspended solids are removed from the water were replaced in the early 2000s.

But the original indoor filter tanks housed in the 1915 red brick building remain in use, though their performance is monitored by computers that track the rate of flow and measures of turbidity — a vital measurement of the percentage of particulates in the water.

Herbert Naylor, superintendent of the city's filtration plants, said the old equipment continues to do a good job of producing some of the best municipal water in the country — with turbidity levels far below federal and state requirements.

But Naylor said the century-old filters are beginning to show their age and may have to be replaced soon

Kocher said the two Lake Montebello filtration plants likely will remain in use into the 2020s, when officials hope to bring a new plant on line in Fullerton in Baltimore County. When that facility opens, public works officials could either retire or refurbish the older Montebello plant.

But aging infrastructure was far from the minds of most of those enjoying the celebration Saturday.

Among those who turned out to celebrate Lake Montebello was Morgan State University President David Wilson, who pointed out that the institution will celebrate the centennial of its move from the west side to Northeast Baltimore in two years.

"Lake Montebello is our waterfront," he said. "Lake Montebello is to Morgan State and Northeast Baltimore what the Inner Harbor is to downtown Baltimore."

Many lined up to taste the city water, which has been ranked in the top 20 nationwide.

Gizachew Wubishet of Harford County, who stumbled on the event by chance when he came to Lake Montebello to run, approved of the flavor.

"It's a good water," he said. "I don't have to bring bottled water with me no more."

But Zoe Lashley, 6, of nearby Waverly was a tougher critic.

"It tastes like the water in the shower when I brush my teeth," she said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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