Unseen City: The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant
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Unseen City: The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant

A view of the filtration building rotunda.

If you live in Toronto, you drink Lake Ontario. You probably showered with Lake Ontario this morning. Later tonight, if you’re the type of person who takes oral hygiene very seriously, you’ll brush your teeth with toothpaste and Lake Ontario for the second time today, and then rinse the foam out of your mouth with Lake Ontario. All of this, of course, is because Lake Ontario runs from your taps. It’s Toronto’s only source of drinking water—a vast natural resource, representing about one percent of the world’s total surface freshwater supply. But before any of that lake water makes it to your sink or shower, it needs to be made safe for your consumption. And that’s where the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant comes in.

R.C. Harris was Roland Caldwell Harris, Toronto’s Commissioner of Public Works from 1912 until 1945, the year he died. Harris was responsible for many of the major infrastructure projects that were built in Toronto during his tenure, including the Bloor Street Viaduct and, naturally, the water treatment plant that now bears his name.

Harris was known for his predilection for striking architecture, and R.C. Harris (the plant, not the man) is certainly that. Harris’s Works Department contracted with the engineering firm Gore, Nasmith, and Storrie, whose architect, Thomas Canfield Pomphrey, designed the plant in the art deco style that was fashionable in his day. The resulting edifice is a huge compound of buff brick, arching windows, and subtle, stylized frescoes, that looks like a factory in the land of Oz.
The plant, located at the extreme east end of Queen Street, at the foot of Victoria Park Avenue, was built in phases throughout the 1930s and became operational in 1941. In the 1950s, a wing was added to its filtration building, doubling its total throughput capacity to almost one billion litres of lake water per day. Currently, the plant purifies about thirty percent of Toronto’s tap water. It’s one of four City treatment plants, which together enabled Toronto to consume 481,032,190,000 liters of water in 2008.

The R.C. Harris plant has two heritage designations, one from the City of Toronto and one from the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering. But despite its architectural appeal, and despite the fact that it was designed to accommodate public tours, the interior of the so-called “palace of purification” has spent the last ten years isolated from admiring eyes, as though under one of those evil spells to which all palaces are occasionally prone. With occasional exceptions, it hasn’t been open to routine visitation by outsiders, including the media, owing to an abundance of post-9/11 caution.
But Toronto Water management recently completed a review of their access policies, and have decided that certain parts of R.C. Harris can once again be opened to periodic tours. As a result, R.C. Harris will be participating in Doors Open Toronto this year. (The last time the plant did Doors Open was in 2000, the program’s inaugural year.)

Ron Brilliant, the Plant Manager at R.C. Harris, is looking forward to receiving the public again. As a kind of warmup for Doors Open, he and Andrea Gonsalves, a communications co-ordinator with the City, gave us a look inside the walls of R.C. Harris, and even beneath its floors.

These are pumps, in the plant’s pump house.

Brilliant has been at the plant since 1997, when he left a private-sector job to work for the City. He carries himself with the calm authority one would probably want from someone responsible for providing a life-critical utility to millions of people, and yet somehow, even though he constantly uses a raised voice to make himself heard over the droning of machinery, he seems soft spoken. A gentle nature is an asset at R.C. Harris, because the plant has those historic designations, and so aside from Brilliant’s more technocratic duties, it’s up to him to make sure the building is maintained in a way that respects its heritage. Fortunately, he seems not to mind playing conservator; to all appearances, he’s completely in love with the plant.

Brilliant leads us inside the pump house, a relatively small building situated to the south of the large filtration building that’s visible from Queen Street.
Inside, we ascend a brass-bannistered staircase into what was originally the plant’s control room. It’s slightly smaller than a school gymnasium, and it’s completely empty save for some antique odds and ends in various corners, and some pictures on the walls. At the moment, the room doesn’t serve a purpose, but that wasn’t always the case. An archival photo from the 1940s shows it filled with NASA gear: huge hulking heaps of electronics, bedazzled with indicator lights and dials. It’s incredibly different from the plant’s current control room: we couldn’t photograph it for security reasons, but it consisted essentially of a large desk with a few computer monitors on it, and one guy sitting behind them.

The plant is now so thoroughly automated that Brilliant says it’s run by just two people 75% of the time. The full staff complement is thirty-one, but most of them are only around during the day. (R.C. Harris is a twenty-four-hour operation, for obvious reasons.)

The original control room has a bank of windows that looks out over the plant’s pumps, which are round, teal things, each as tall as a man, that crouch like snails on an orange-tiled floor. They suck water out of Lake Ontario and then shoot it off to other distribution locations throughout the city once it’s purified. Brilliant says the pumps are the same ones that were initially installed when the plant was first constructed. They’re kept around not for heritage reasons, but rather because they were built to last. “If we bought new ones, the walls on them would be about this thick,” says Brilliant, holding his fingers very close together. The old pumps have walls that are much thicker than that.

From the pump house, Brilliant leads us to the filtration building, the largest of the plant’s aboveground structures and probably its best known. Inside, we visit a small laboratory, where ten identical kitchen faucets continuously pour into a single, long basin. They look like some kind of surrealist sculptural meditation on the implacability of water, but actually they serve a practical purpose: each faucet is connected to a different point in the plant’s purification process, so staff can quickly take samples from anywhere in the works, to calibrate their testing equipment.

Brilliant takes a paper cup and sticks it under a faucet that flows with raw lake water, then fills a second cup with the plant’s final, purified product. “You won’t be able to tell the difference between our raw water and our finished water,” he says. “This lake is very, very clean. It’s something that people tend to think is not clean, but that’s totally wrong.” Most of what R.C. Harris filters out is sand and grit. The water, when it arrives, says Brilliant, is already so spotless that it’s difficult to purify it further.

He gives us both cups to examine. There isn’t any visible difference between the two. We ask if we can taste from both, but he says: “No.”

A view of the exterior of the plant’s service building.

The main part of the filtration building is designed in such an ornate, idiosyncratic way that it’s hard to believe its construction was ever funded. Twin hallways flanked by green marble control panels stretch in opposite directions from a central rotunda with a domed ceiling, dominated by a towering art deco grandfather clock-like structure with four faces, all fitted with brass plates, brass dials, and brass hands. One face is a clock, but the other faces are connected to the plant’s vital systems. They indicate water levels at various phases of the treatment process. This information was once necessary, but now that everything is mostly automated, the whole clock apparatus is mainly decorative.

Under Brilliant’s watch, this hallway has had some of its marble replaced. He and his staff removed coverings from the windows to give the space back some of its original character. On some of the old marble control panels, plastic stoppers plug holes where old instrumentation was removed in order to make room for new, digital controls. Brilliant concedes that he could have replaced the panels with replicas that didn’t have holes, but he believes in keeping the plant outfitted with as much of its original ornamentation as possible.

The overall appearance of the interior of the filtration building is like a 1920s sci-fi movie set (in the vein of Metropolis), and in fact we aren’t the first to note that. R.C. Harris, like many Toronto landmarks, has had occasional star turns. It has served, in films, as headquarters for leagues of evil masterminds, prisons, and asylums. Brilliant disliked sharing the plant with film crews even before the post-9/11 security crackdown. He has a scary anecdote involving a 150-pound camera and a pipeline full of toxic chlorine.

To either side of the huge hallways are rows of filtration beds, forty in all. The beds do the brunt of the plant’s dirty work, and their mechanism of action is surprisingly simple. Lake water, after being treated with a coagulant to gather whatever small amounts of foreign matter might be present in it, is pumped on top of the beds, which are just flat expanses of fine-grained anthracite—in other words, charcoal. The water dribbles down, leaving whatever gritty debris and other impurities may be present trapped in the charcoal. The clean water continues dripping down through successively coarser layers of rock until it reaches an underground reservoir. Then chemicals are added, chiefly fluoride and chlorine. At this point, the water is ready to be pumped off to the city at large.

These are filtration beds, in the filtration building.

This process is similar to the one that takes place in any home filtration pitcher (a Brita, for instance). Brilliant is a little contemptuous of the idea of home purification. He doesn’t partake in it, himself.

“The problem I have with Brita filters is that the first time you use it, it’s good. Second time you use it, what are you doing? You’ve got some not good stuff, and now you’re putting some more not good stuff through.”

“It just becomes a breeding ground.”

R.C. Harris cleans its filters at regular intervals. It does this by flooding the filtration beds with water from underneath. The water picks up whatever dirt has accumulated in the charcoal, and is then sluiced away into a massive, newly-built underground residue management facility, where the dirt is allowed to settle out, and is then separated with centrifuges and dumped into huge waste containers for removal, while the excess water is pumped back into the lake. This process is known by unappetizing appellation, “backwash.”

The underground residue management facility was the last big project to be completed at the plant. It was finished in 2008. (And it was executed, incidentally, by CH2M Hill Canada, which merged, in 1995, with Gore and Storrie, the company that originally designed the plant.) Now, the focus is on its exteriors. R.C. Harris is in the middle of a thorough revitalization of its walls and roofs. Parts of the outsides of the plant’s buildings are swathed in scaffolding, while contractors replace the old brick with new, similar brick. It’s disruptive work, but it’s the only way to keep the place in good condition for years to come.
Brilliant doesn’t see protecting the building’s historical and architectural appeal as onerous. “To me, it’s just good practices,” he says.