Body of Water

D riving along Whitney Avenue on a clear morning, you might see a mysterious flash off to the west, just over the Hamden border. Crane your neck, and you’ll see the sun—not as it sits in the sky, but as it reflects off the side of the Whitney Water Treatment Plant, a dazzling silver behemoth set behind a lush public park and a chain link fence.

Last Wednesday, I tagged along with Jim Hill, the operations project manager, as he gave a tour of the enigmatic building. Hill explains the plant was originally designed to be “open to the public,” but after 9/11, “the rules changed for everyone,” and the fence went up. Now, the only way in is to schedule a tour with Hill, and even then there’s no photography allowed inside.

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We wound our way through the plant, tracing the path that a single water molecule takes in its roughly six-hour stint inside. The “raw water” flows from Lake Whitney into the plant, where it mixes with coagulants like aluminum sulfate in a massive, chilly room that smells clean and aquatic and is overwhelmingly loud thanks to the machinery’s thrum. The first step in the process of cleaning raw water involves solidifying whatever unwelcome solubles have gotten into it, which the positively charged coagulant chemicals accomplish by attracting negatively charged pollutants, thereby forming larger, removable particles.

We traveled up an echoing, concrete hallway to the next stage—massive vats of water covered in two inches of pungent, organic sludge waiting to be siphoned off. The solids formed in the first step have been floated to the surface by “micro-bubbles,” like a straw floating upwards in a glass of soda. The sludge is removed and reused by landscapers, while the water goes onto the next step: disinfection by ozone.

The squeaky clean smell of ozone is welcome after the preceding room, but Hill says it’s only in a “low concentration [that ozone] smells fresh. At high concentration, it smells like chlorine. And at a really high concentration it doesn’t smell like anything because it’s burning you,” he says. Once the water has been treated with ozone, it gets one last filtration through activated charcoal, and then it’s down and out into the water pipes.

The building was designed by Steven Holl Architects to resemble an inverted water droplet, and its brilliant exterior—which reflects the surrounding scenery like a camouflaged blimp—is matched only by the elegant, monastic interior. The space is airy and echoing, curved and sluiced as if formed by tasteful erosion. The interior walls are chalk-white and alight with massive windows. On a regular day, there are only two people in the entire plant, giving it the feel of a ghostly spaceship, always with the sound of running water behind the walls or beneath your feet.

We pass by a bank of blinking computer monitors and out onto the plant’s green roof. Bright with clover, blooming flowers and long grasses, the roof is both beautiful and functional. As opposed to an impervious surface which dumps rainfall into the Mill River and out to sea, “it takes the water in and slowly releases it back into the [local] environment,” Hill says. The hilly design of the public park surrounding the plant is similarly thoughtful, meant to minimize runoff.

This newest building, finished in 2005, stands on the site of the original water treatment plant, which was built around the turn of the century in response to a devastating typhoid outbreak. Since then, it’s been purifying and recycling water primarily for Hamden—and for as far as Milford during times of high demand, like right now. As the weather heats up, the plant processes more water than usual—about 45 millions gallons a week—and sends it flowing beneath our roads, towards our faucets and hoses, pools and sprinklers and anywhere else we might need a splash of water.

Whitney Water Treatment Plant
900 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
(203) 401-6729 | jhill@rwater.com
www.rwater.com

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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