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Hidden Works: What's really inside that house?

Water is a big topic these days. There's a scarcity of it out West. Algae blooms shut down Toledo's drinking water system earlier this month, and Cincinnati remains on the leading edge of water technology. But those are all obvious. We see or hear about them frequently.  WVXU went looking behind-the-scenes at a hidden aspect of our water delivery system - something thousands of Cincinnatians pass each day but never truly see.

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
From the outside, this Kennedy Heights "apartment building" looks just like the others beside it.

Greater Cincinnati Water Works Superintendent of Water Supply, Jeff Pieper, looks up at an apartment building in Kennedy Heights. "This is our Kennedy Avenue pump station," he says. "It looks just like all the other apartment buildings that are next door to it. It's a brick structure with a front porch and a sidewalk leading up to it. If you didn't know, you'd just say it's a neighborhood apartment."

Pieper and Assistant Superintendent Larry Moster unlock the back door to reveal what's actually inside this cleverly disguised building. Instead of apartments, the inside is just one cavernous space filled with large blue pipes. The roar from the machinery is almost overwhelming.

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
Standing at the "front door," the inside of this apartment building houses pumps and pipes that keep water flowing to our sinks and toilets.

"This building was put in in 1997," says Moster. "It has four pumps that pump the water from Eastern Hills into the Blue Ash area. There's an overhead crane and electrical equipment up in the front and water quality monitoring equipment to make sure that the quality of the water in this area meets all the standards."

This hidden operation is fascinating to an outsider but everything seems pretty standard to Moster. "That's all there really is to the station, pipes in and pipes out. It's all very routine to us," he laughs.

Even though you can't see them as you drive by, these pipes are very important.

Cincinnati's many hills make getting water to customers a chore. Each year, billions of gallons must be constantly pumped up and down and up again to get from intake stations along the Ohio River to homes across the region. Jeff Pieper says that means pump stations like this one, and others operated by the Metropolitan Sewer District, sometimes need to be right in the middle of neighborhoods.

...we try to blend in as best we can with the surrounding area. ~ Jeff Pieper

"We have three that are very much camouflaged like neighborhoods and all of our facilities we try to blend in as best we can with the surrounding area," says Pieper. "It makes it better for the neighbors. We try to be good neighbors and maintain nice property and if we can do a nice job of blending our facilities it helps in that respect."

While some facilities, including the Mt. Airy reservoir, were built to stand-out, almost as monuments to big public works project, Ryan Welsh with the Metropolitan Sewer District says MSD tries to place most of its pump stations out-of-sight underground or in small, remote block buildings.

But when you have to be right out in the open, Welsh says, blending in is best.

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
The Muddy Creek - Westbourne High Rate Treatment Facility keeps storm-water and sewage overflows from backing up into the Muddy Creek.

"We've got one that looks a little bit like a church," he says. "I think if you were driving by on the road you'd think it was a church. It's a pump station. In general, we try to match the neighborhood as far as landscaping and try to make things so they don't stand out."

West-siders have likely driven past another MSD facade. Muddy Creek in Green Township used to back up and flood. A lot. And smell. A LOT. Now, what looks like a house or small office building sits on the corner of Neeb and Muddy Creek Roads. But there are no couches or kitchens inside, it's really a high rate treatment facility designed to keep wet weather sewage overflows and odors at bay.

One facility almost everyone has probably seen is the Elsinore Castle on Gilbert Avenue at the base of Mt. Adams. Jeff Pieper says it's a hidden Water Works facility too.

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
Not just your typical run-of-the-mill castle, The Elsinore Castle serves a more 'fluid' purpose.

"The superintendent of Water Works at {the time it was built}, A.G. Moore, liked the play Hamlet and that's a replica of the castle out of Hamlet," says Pieper. "He went to a {performance of} Hamlet and he liked it so much that he went the next day and had that facility commissioned to serve as a valve house out of our Eden Park Reservoir."

Pieper says Elsinore Castle still serves a purpose for Water Works even though the Eden Park Reservoir is no more.

Something else the sewer district and water works are hiding in plain sight: reservoirs and holding tanks. They're tucked away under ball fields, golf courses and parks, making sure water and sewage get where they belong without being an eyesore.

What inspired this story? This great bit of reporting from NPR member station WUNC in Chapel Hill, NC.