Wilmette water plant tour offers a glimpse into history
Wilmette Water Superintendent Nabil Quafisheh explains the basic workings of the plant during a tour for the Wilmette Historical Society Saturday morning. | Eric Davis ~ For Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 29, 2012 3:42PM
The 20 or so visitors who peppered Nabil Quafisheh with questions about Wilmette’s water plant during a Saturday tour of the venerable Lake Avenue facility might not have known about the study Wilmette village trustees authorized last month as the village gauges the likelihood of selling water to Des Plaines.
Before they left the plant, though, they knew about it. And they knew a lot more than they did before starting the Wilmette Historical Museum-sponsored tour about the water that sluices from their bathroom and kitchen faucets.
Quafisheh, the water plant supervisor, was happy to talk about the mechanics, chemistry and physics of making that water clean and safe.
As he led visitors down a broad hall bracketed by pump machinery, water filtration tanks, and – somewhat surrealistic inside this building – the occasional life preserver, he walked them through the process.
So visitors could look into a tank cloudy with “floc,” clumps of particulate matter formed by the introduction of alum to start the filtration process. They were able to watch a shadowy paddle move that water about and push it further along its way, through filters of crushed anthracite coal and sand that simulate natural groundwater purification processes.
Quafisheh showed them how the baffled walls of other filtration tanks slow water as it courses through the system, giving it more time to absorb other chemicals introduced at various points along its route: activated carbon, fluoride (for teeth), phosphate (to help preserve pipes) and chlorine (to kill everything from zebra mussels to viruses.)
Then he led them to one of the labs where his chemists test water on a daily basis, before taking them to the control room from which engineers preside over surveillance cameras and a sophisticated computer monitoring system that scrutinizes every aspect of the water’s journey, from flow, to pressure, to cleanliness.
He obviously was proud of the high standards maintained by his 17-person staff of plant operators, electricians, chemists and mechanics, both on site and at Wilmette’s western pumping station, reservoir and standpipe.
For instance, Wilmette is one of only three municipal plants in Illinois to reach water quality levels called for by the voluntary Partnership for Safe Water, he said, and the plant maintains water clarity, or turbidity, standards that are far in excess of minimums set by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
“I drink tap water,” he said, holding up his own mug of water. When asked about bottled water, Quafisheh’s expression spoke volumes, although he kept his comment to a noncommittal “bottled water only has to meet FDA standards.”
Quafisheh went beyond technical specifications during the tour. He also provided a glimpse into the water plant’s past and evolution.
The journey that Lake Michigan water takes from nearly a mile off-shore to consumers in Wilmette and points west had a tumultuous start more than 80 years ago, he said. Wilmette voters initially rejected plans for a water plant, even though the village had suffered shortages in 1930 when connections with supplier Evanston failed.
Prominent opponents included members of the Shawnee Club, now the Michigan Shores Club. But the plant had a formidable proponent in the form of then-Village President Carbon Petroleum Dubbs, and it was built in 1933.
Its 1934 inaugural capacity was 6 million gallons per day, and it served 4,500 people. But by 1937 Wilmette began pumping water to Glenview (“all two people who were probably there then,” Quafisheh joked), and it added service to the Glenview Naval Air Base in 1952.
By 1956 the plant had to expand, adding more pumps and filters; it expanded again in 1971, bringing gallons-per-day capacity to 27 million, serving a population of more than 40,000. In 2000, a major upgrade of hydraulics and other mechanicals allowed Wilmette to serve 87,000 customers and run at a top capacity of 44 million gallons of water per day. (It actually averages only 12 million gallons per day, Quafisheh noted, “so we have plenty of capacity.”)
And, in a turnabout that might have bemused its original backers, 70 percent of the water Wilmette pumps now goes to Glenview (and, via Glenview’s sale to a private distributor, to parts of Mount Prospect.)
As she walked out of the plant, tour-goer Kathy Klawans said this was a return visit for her. Years earlier she had gone through the plant with the League of Women Voters.
“I really wanted to come back because it was so interesting. People really don’t think about where their water comes from, or how much goes into providing it,” Klawans said.
“I’m glad I came.”