In 1917, when Bethlehem officially became a City, the chief source of water supply was the Lehigh River and the wells at Illick's Mill. In view of the fact that Bethlehem was expanding and growing at a rapid pace, it was evident that a more reliable and better supply of water, especially in quality and quantity, was the ultimate goal. As a result, our Council had the foresight in 1918 to instruct the City Engineer to make a comprehensive survey of the possible new sources of water supply so that the needs of the community could be fulfilled for future generations. The desire for the best possible source for a supply of water led to the selection of an area in the Pocono Mountains in Carbon County for the construction of the Wild Creek Reservoir.
On July 26, 1938, City Council created the Bethlehem Municipal Water Authority (whose name was changed to the Bethlehem Authority in 1949), the first one to be established in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. After reviewing the report of the City Engineer on the Wild Creek waters, the evidence was presented to the State Water and Power Resources Board to obtain permission for the utilization of these waters by the Authority. Fortunately, the pattern for an expanding water supply system for the City of Bethlehem was approved by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Construction of the Wild Creek Reservoir, the chemical treatment building, two one-mile rock tunnels, and twenty-one miles of 30" water transmission mains was initiated on December 29, 1938. Work progressed at a rapid pace and in January, 1941, the total project was completed at a total cost of 4.1 million dollars.
In 1938, the daily consumption of water in the City was 4 M.G.D. (million gallons per day). In 1944, the consumption rose to 17 M.G.D., in 1955 to 20 M.G.D. and in 1980 to 26 M.G.D. The rapid increase of water consumption, plus the demand for extending our water service, was a definite warning to us that our present supply was inadequate to cope with this situation. As a result, City Council and the Bethlehem Authority (Authority) met on several occasions to institute proceedings to acquire an additional supply. After a comprehensive report and study was made of the Wild Creek drainage area, it was decided by both bodies to construct the Penn Forest Reservoir a short distance upstream from the Wild Creek Reservoir.
In September of 1958, the total project was completed. The Penn Forest Reservoir retains the water that was normally lost over the Wild Creek spillway. The total capacity of both reservoirs when filled is ten billion, three hundred million gallons of water or about a year's supply at the then present consumption rate.
In 1963, a wildfire destroyed approximately 2,300 acres of the Wild Creek watershed. A re-forestation project was begun shortly thereafter and completed in 1968 under the direction of City Forester, John Ansbach.
Over the years the water system continued to expand and improve with the addition of a 5 million gallon Southeast Lower service reservoir in 1965 and a 42" parallel Wild Creek transmission main in 1968.
A backup water supply project was next in 1967 which added 12 million gallons of capacity from the Tunkhannock Creek in Monroe County near Long Pond. The Tunkhannock project was completed in 1968. However, because of the water quality, mainly due to color from decaying vegetation, water is generally only taken from the Tunkhannock Creek during the winter months and spring runoff.
As the system continued to grow, significant improvements continued to be made. Most notable of these were in the early 1990's with the construction of a federally mandated 42 M.G.D. water filtration plant, construction of 19,500 feet of a 48" water transmission main from the water filtration plant to the Howertown Control Station, construction of a 5.0 M.G. Southwest Low Service Reservoir to augment the 12 M.G. open reservoir behind St. Luke's Hospital, construction of 23,800 feet of a 42" raw water transmission main from Wire Ridge to the Blue Mountain and the purchase of additional lands in the Wild Creek watershed.
After it was discovered that the original Penn Forest Dam had been leaking for a number of years, a new replacement dam needed to be built. Construction on the new Penn Forest Dam commenced in June, 1996, and was substantially completed on November 17, 1998, and began refilling in January 1999 and dedicated on June 21, 1999. This roller compacted concrete dam is the third largest dam by volume in the United States and the largest RCC dam by volume east of the Mississippi River. This new dam is buttressed on the downstream face by earth and rockfill excavated from the embankment of the original Penn Forest Dam. Savings of approximately $20 million was realized by choosing this design which utilized the existing spillway, diversion and intake structures from the old Penn Forest Dam.
The distribution system in the 45 square mile service area has also grown to where it serves approximately 109,000 people and has over 476 miles of main line pipe. There is a network of small size pipes and over 35,100 service connections. In addition to servicing the City of Bethlehem, it serves two boroughs and all or parts of nine townships.
Prior to January, 1998, engineering projects were handled by the Department of Public Works, Bureau of Water Supply & Treatment. Subsequent to January, 1998, engineering projects were handled by the Department of Water & Sewer Resources, Bureau of Water Supply & Treatment. Currently, the City's Department of Water & Sewer Resources is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the water system while the Department of Public Work's Bureau of Engineering is responsible for managing and/or executing engineering projects for the system.
Following the closing of the Bethlehem Steel Company in 1996, and the resultant decline in water consumption, the water system was faced with new challenges both financial and operational. The City and the Authority met these challenges and are growing the system into developing suburban areas outside of the city, including East Allen and Lower Nazareth Townships, as well as meeting the new demands within the city, such as the Wind Creek Casino and Hotel Complex and the large industrial development complex that has occurred on the property of the former Bethlehem Steel Company.
Since the mid-2000's, the Authority took on a more active role in the forestry management of its watershed properties. A full-time Police Officer was hired to patrol the watershed following reports of stolen timber, trespassing, trash dumping and widespread illegal ATV traffic. The Authority commissioned a Forest Management Plan for the selected stands in the Tunkhannock Creek watershed and hired a forestry consultant to implement the forestry plans for all of the watershed properties. The Authority entered into a Public Access Agreement with the PA Game Commission that allowed cooperative enforcement activity between the two agencies.
In 2011, after months of discussion and negotiations, the Authority received City Council approval to enter into a Conservation Easement with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) on most of the 22,000 acres of watershed property. TNC and the Authority then completed a Forest Management Plan for the properties that was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the preeminent sustainable forest certification entity in the world. This partnership with TNC and FSC allowed the Authority to enter into the Voluntary Carbon markets where carbon that is sequestered in the sustainably managed forest is sold to companies wishing to reduce their carbon footprint. Through 2020, the Authority has received over $1.0 million dollars in revenue through this Working Woodlands program.
In 2013, the Authority entered into a License and Lease Agreement with Atlantic Wind LLC for the development and construction of a 28 turbine wind energy project in Penn Forest Township in the Wild Creek watershed. The project has been challenged by local residents, the township and its Board and has been tied up in the court system and to date has not been constructed.
In 2018, after several years of negotiations, the Authority signed a License Agreement with PennEast Pipeline Co., LLC (PennEast) for the construction of a natural gas pipeline through approximately 26 acres of watershed property in the Wild Creek watershed. The Authority negotiated many concessions from PennEast as to the location and the enhancement of construction standards for the pipeline to protect the pristine high quality water supply and water transmission infrastructure. Due to legal challenges, the pipeline remains unbuilt as of 2021.
The Authority continues to work with the City's Department of Water and Sewer Resources and the City Administration to finance the capital improvement plans for the water system by issuing bonds or refinancing bonds for savings. In 2014, such a bond refinancing took place that freed up approximately $5.0 million dollars for new capital improvements. The Authority and the City are looking into the near future to study market conditions and determine when another financing would be prudent to continue the capital improvements that are needed to keep the water system facilities operating to their maximum efficiency, improve security and continue delivering high quality water to the system's 120,000 customers.