The Backstory: Water, water everywhere

Ann Arbor founders Elisha Rumsey and John Allen settled near two bodies of water, the Huron River and what was later named Allen's Creek. This surely was not an accident. They needed water for drinking, bathing, cooking, and a trade route. As was always the case, where there was water there was life - or in this case, a brand new town.

These days, we move faster than the fastest horse, using trucks, trains and planes to transport goods. But now as then, we still need water to survive.

In the 1860s, when the city was young, a private company named the Artesian Well Company provided water to the Ann Arbor community. After its demise, the city authorized another private company called the Ann Arbor Water Company to build a water works system. The station pumped water from the Huron River up to the reservoir on Sunset Road, and then pipes carried the water down into the city.

A chief concern at this time was fire. In response, large cisterns and wells were dug by the city. In 1886, the private water company installed over 100 hydrants, and guaranteed that water pressure would be sufficient to combat any fire. By 1897, the company installed more hydrants and opened up an auxiliary station on West Washington Street. This was most likely in response to concerns raised by the mayor in 1894 that the private water company had breached its contract with the city and were guilty of criminal negligence. The city's fire chief informed the mayor that the hydrant pressures were not sufficient for fire protection. Three years later, the fire chief stated to Common Council that he anticipated no more trouble thanks to the additional pipes and hydrants installed by the Ann Arbor Water Company.

Of course, drinking water was also paramount for the growing community. Initially, steam-powered pumps were used to obtain water from artesian wells that had been dug around the city. As more and more people moved into Ann Arbor, the wells struggled to keep up with demand. Thus, in 1900, the Huron River became our main source of water. That same year, the city installed a filter bed to remove the sediment that collected in the water. At its September 15, 1913 meeting, the Common Council proposed to purchase the Ann Arbor Water Company for $450,000. Our water has been under the control of the city ever since.

Our current Water Treatment Plant on Sunset Road was built in 1938. Additions were made to it in 1945. A second plant was built in 1966, and added onto in 1975. Between the two, the plant processes 15 million gallons of water per day. (Go ahead and count to 15,000,000. We'll wait). That translates to roughly 5 billion gallons of water per year for 125,000 people. The folks who work at these plants constantly monitor water purity, keeping it potable.

The Huron River is still our main source for water, accounting for about 85 percent of the what we use. The remaining water comes from wells south of the city. Primarily, the treatment plant uses ozone and chloramines (a combined chlorine mixture) to disinfect the water. The latter disinfectant has fewer by-products and less odor and taste than chlorine. The water is also softened with calcium hydroxide, stabilized with phosphate and has fluoride added for dental protection. The water is then filtered and disinfected and voila! safe water emerges from the taps in our homes.

The idea of turning a simple lever and getting clean, tasty water likely would have seemed impossible to residents back in the early days of Ann Arbor. Nevertheless, they always knew how important a safe water supply was. In 1906, the Common Council said "there is no more important interest in a community than its water supply." 110 years later, this statement remains as true as ever.

Patti Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website,, as well as local bookstores.