Howard Neukrug’s Plan to Water Down Philadelphia

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The head of the Philadelphia Water Department is a worldwide leader in next-generation water management systems.

From the expansive windows of his corner office in the Aramark Tower, Philadelphia Water Department commissioner Howard Neukrug has recently had a front-row seat to yet another example of the changing nature of Philadelphia — the demolition of the entire south side of the 1100 block of Market Street.

For the closely shorn, tieless 58-year-old, that gaping maw, pregnant with the promise of future development, is another reaffirmation that his plan to challenge decades of status quo is the right call. Since 2012, he has been leading the PWD through his “Clean Waters, Green Cities” initiative, an epochal 25-year, $2 billion program that has already put the city at the forefront of progressive municipal planning, with municipalities from around the world employing versions of it.


After almost four decades of being part of administrations both progressive and reactionary — he joined the department in 1978, the same year he graduated from Penn with a degree in civil and urban engineering — Neukrug is uniquely positioned to use his first-hand experience of what has and hasn’t worked in the past when planning for the future of the 214-year-old utility. To find out what the Queens native and longtime member of Mishkan Shalom has in store — not just for the 2.3 million customers of PWD, but also for its 2,000 employees, 6,000 miles of pipes and six water treatment facilities — I sat down with Neukrug for a conversation that has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Just what is “Clean Water, Green Cities”?

The old concept of water management was to take rainwater and discharge it as quickly as possible; the usefulness of that is zero, it is a waste. If we can capture the water before then and use it for plants and trees, we are better managing — and valuing — the water. To do that, we will be using watershed management, green infrastructure from rain barrels to bioswales (landscape elements designed to remove pollution from runoff water). If we really want to have drinkable, swimmable, fishable, safe rivers and streams, the only way to do that is to marry land issues to water issues.

What are the keys to planning for the city’s long-term water future?

The question is, what do we need to do 50 years from now? What is the vision? Where are we getting drinking water from? We need to be looking at how we design, plan and manage our city.

As we look toward the future, we have to determine how many people are going to be living in the city, and how are we going to get them clean water, clean rivers and streams that are attractive and accessible. That’s what people want — just look at the phenomenal success of the Schuylkill Trail!

What part do your customers play in the program?

It’s really the simple things, like getting a rain barrel for your downspout. It seems like such a small thing, but people are really excited — we have given away thousands of them!

Given away?

Well, we give them away, but you have to take a course in how to use them. Nothing in life is truly free.

You teach two classes at Penn — are you looking for the next generation of planners?

I have a couple students every semester who really get what I’m teaching. They change their major, their whole focus of what they want to do; it’s nice to have that kind of impact.

How do you drink your water at home?

We have a filter on our refrigerator and we generally use that — not because it is healthier or safer, but because we like the taste of clean, fresh water at 35 degrees.

Why does Philadelphia water have such a … distinctive taste?

What distinctive taste? A good distinctive taste? Water does have a slightly different taste in different places, depending on if it’s ground water or surface water. Our water starts in the Catskill Mountains and runs through the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey to the Schuylkill and the Delaware. We chlorinate it, and it is better for the chlorine to be there than not; if it’s not, your water may have been contaminated. A simple filter can take care of the taste.

Greg Salisbury is definitely going to take advantage of the rain barrel offer by going to phillywatersheds.org.

 

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