Joanne Dahme — water is in her blood

Joanne Dahme, manager of public affairs for the Philadelphia Water Department, right, speaks with Jamie Wyper, president of the Residents of the Shawmont Valley, at last week's meeting of the civic. Submitted photo — Schuylkill Center

At last Nov. 20’s meeting of the Residents of the Shawmont Valley civic association, the group representing neighbors living in the area down Shawmont Avenue and along Nixon Street and River Road, a group of 25 gathered in Roxborough Church to hear the Philadelphia Water Department talk through its plan for constructing sewers along River Road, a process that, while necessary to protect the Schuylkill River’s quality, will be immensely disruptive to that community.

While the department's head, Commissioner Debra McCarty, was in attendance that night, the meeting was skillfully led by Joanne Dahme, a longtime Roxborough resident who heads the community relations division of the utility. While Philly Water hadn’t met with the residents for more than a year, while they’ve been talking about this project since 2007 and while construction begins in earnest in the spring, the meeting was surprisingly, well, pleasant, considering what’s at stake — the temperature in the room remained happily low, compared to other public meetings many of us have seen.

Hopefully that’s a testament to the ability of Dahme to communicate to those in attendance — her neighbors — that the Water Department will work closely with the neighborhood to mitigate the disruptiveness of the construction. And she admitted — as did McCarty, as well — that that kind of attention represented a sea-change in the department’s operations in the last few decades.

And Dahme should know. Retiring next spring, she has done several stints in the Water Department since 1980, hired back then as a civil engineer fresh out of Villanova, working in construction — I’m guessing she’s a bit of a trailblazer, as women were only then breaking into engineering and construction. (McCarty herself is the city’s first female commissioner, it should be noted.)

“The city was upgrading all three of its treatment plants with federal dollars,” she told me over coffee at Vault and Vine in East Falls. “Philadelphia got funding through the Clean Water Act to renovate its treatment plants, as they were only doing primary treatment back then — we were only removing solids from water.”

That’s one big change in her 30-plus years at Philly Water: all three treatment plants have since been upgraded to secondary treatment, removing solids plus killing bacteria in the water.

“We were still dumping sludge in the ocean back then,” she grimaced. “We’d put it on a barge and dump it 80 miles out in the ocean.” With the Clean Water Act halting that practice, “it's amazing how far we’ve come.”

She left PWD at one point to get a master’s in journalism and returned to the department — water must be in her blood — to start the public affairs division, which she manages. The department back then “realized we should do some education and engagement.” From a very small group, public affairs has grown to include over 100 employees, 70 alone in its call center handling your phone calls. There's a creative team that does the in-house design of their brochures and signage, a public engagement team for the city’s innovative Green City Clean Waters plan, a community relations team to run public meetings like last Tuesday’s and an education team focusing on programming at the Fairmount Water Works.

That’s a lot of moving parts and “way too many meetings,” she acknowledged.

When she joined PWD in 1980, the focus was very much on what professionals call “point sources,” discrete pipes pumping effluent into the river. To treat pollution, they changed what flows out of individual pipes. Today, she noted, much of the discussion is about “nonpoint source pollution like stormwater,” pollution coming not from pipes anymore but from streets and the land, from everywhere water drains.

“We’ve changed the way we look at stormwater,” she offered.

And more Roxborough residents can talk about stormwater now than ever before because we are directly impacted by storms and erosion from high rainfall, especially during this wet, wet year.

That’s another change.

“We have a great climate change team in place,” she offered. “They are incredible, doing cutting-edge work.”

With climate change intensifying storms — just look at recent deluges in this record-breaking year — the city will have to deal with stormwater differently. And it is, like charging people for stormwater services.

But on the upside, “there has been a rebound in aquatic life,” she reported, “a growth in the species of fish that have come back to our rivers, plus beavers, otters and bald eagles.

"The ecosystem has rebounded,” she concluded, smiling. “The rivers are cleaner than they’ve been in 150 years. But there’s so much more work to be done.”

In addition to her degree in journalism, she’s also holds a master’s in creative writing and has published five young adult novels, including “Contagion,” a historical novel set in the Water Works in 1895 during the typhoid epidemic. She hopes to do more writing but may also be volunteering for PWD.

After retirement, “I’ll likely attend some meetings on behalf of the Water Department.”

Like I said, water is in her blood.

Public servants get a bad rap in this and so many other cities, but Philadelphia — and Roxborough — is lucky to have such a dedicated public servant working tirelessly to protect our drinking water while living with us here in Roxborough. Thanks, Joanne.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEE Mike and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

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