A Cool Drink of Water

A Cool Drink of Water

Newly opened plant in Lorton can produce 120 million gallons of water daily.

Fanning themselves under an air-conditioned white tent, several hundred residents of Fairfax County, elected officials and water connoisseurs officially opened the Frederick P. Griffith Jr., Water Treatment Plant Saturday morning.

“This is a major addition to the critical infrastructure of Northern Virginia,” said Chuck Murray, general manager of Fairfax Water, adding that the plant, which has a capacity to produce 120 million gallons of water daily, has been completed just in time for the water authority’s “golden anniversary in 2007.”

The new facility “is the latest in a long series of efforts to produce abundant, safe, reliable and cost-effective water,” Murray said, which will also comply with “increasingly stringent water treatment regulations.”

Murray promised those gathered under the tent that, to keep them hydrated and comfortable from the humid heat in the late morning sun on Saturday, July 15, there would be a steady supply of “our beverage of choice today, our beverage of choice everyday, clear, cool Fairfax Water.”

After he was thanked by Harry Day, chair of the Fairfax Water Board of Directors, for his dedication in closing the former Lorton Prison and securing the 150 acres upon which the new plant was built, U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) said he was simply following the orders of the Lorton community, who had been “calling for the prison to close for decades. It was a disgrace.”

THROUGH A BILL passed in 1997 and land transfers that were approved in the following years, Fairfax County not only secured a new home for a bigger, state-of-the-art water facility, but also “protected this area from mass development,” one of the few parts of the country to do so with a “federal envelope to keep development down.”

Water treatment experts from around the world have traveled to Fairfax County to study its facilities, Davis said, certain that any future visitors would continue to be impressed with their practices.

“In addition, we pay allegiance to the past by honoring it," he said, referring to the facility's architecture. The water plant was designed to reflect the Occoquan Workhouse, the Reform-era prison facility which housed the suffragettes in the early 1900s who were fighting to earn the right for women to vote.

Members of Fairfax Water have been waiting for the new plant for “a long time,” said Kate Hanley, secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia. “I read your 1999 report, which noted a new facility to open in 2003, and in the 2001 report, it was said that work had started on the plant, again calling for it to open in 2003,” she said.

In subsequent years, the anticipated opening was pushed back, until in 2005 there was no mention of an opening date at all, she said.

“We all know that big, necessary projects take time and care,” Hanley said. “After all, Rome wasn’t in a day, even their aqueducts or basic infrastructure.”

Now, with the new plant, “one in five Virginians will have their water needs met by this plant,” she said. “This is a clear sign that Fairfax Water will remain a leader in public utilities.”

With his daughter in the crowd, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-At-large) said the more than one million residents of Fairfax County could now “take advantage of the improvement in the quality of water treatment” that will result from the new plant, which replaces three older facilities along the Occoquan River, the first of which was built in the 1950s.

After Hurricane Isabel in 2003, when Fairfax County lost water service for the first and only time in Fairfax Water’s history, it became apparent that new measures were needed to prevent that from happening again, Connolly said. “Our system produces 140 million gallons of water a day, and this facility will obviously give us additional capacity so we can be sure that will never happen again,” he said.

Irma Clifton thanked Fairfax Water for listening to the Lorton community and considering their wishes to have the new facility reflect the historical significance of the prison.

MODELED AFTER the Occoquan Workhouse and the penitentiary that still stands across the street, the new water treatment plant features the same beige-colored bricks and false chimneys that dominate the landscape of the former Lorton Prison, said Clifton, who spoke on behalf of the Lorton Heritage Society.

“Fairfax Water committed themselves to review any salvageable materials and to be true to the history of the area,” she said. “In addition, they salvaged and saved artifacts and conducted a photo survey to document the history of the site,” much of which has been incorporated into the Visitors’ Center inside the plant, which tells the story of the Occoquan Workhouse and the women imprisoned there.

To further honor the legacy of the suffragettes, the white historic marker telling the story of the Occoquan Workhouse was rededicated at the northern end of the water treatment plant’s campus, courtesy of the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area (see related story).

The man of the hour was Fred Griffith Jr., a civil engineer who worked for Fairfax Water from its early days, when he was warned not to accept a job with them because no one expected the Water Authority to last more than a few years.

Joined by his wife of 54 years, Frances, and five of their six children, Griffith joked with some of his classmates from Washington-Lee High School who “would’ve voted me most likely to go to jail in high school, if there were such a category,” he laughed.

“Here we are today at the old Lorton prison, but it wasn’t how you anticipated,” Griffith said.

His career didn’t turn out the way he had expected either, originally working with Department of Sanitation and retiring from Fairfax Water as its engineer director in 1991.

He took a moment to thank Fred Morin, the former chair of the Fairfax Water Board of Directors who died last year, for his leadership.

“He guided Fairfax Water through good and tough times, he was a tremendous asset to Fairfax County,” Griffith said.

With all the new water quality regulations required by the Environmental Protection Agency, the new plant that bears his name “rivals the National Institute of Health” with its laboratory and testing capacity, Griffith said. “There are 130 potential items in drinking water. In my days before EPA regulations, there were 10 tests we conducted every day,” he said.