The Most Important Commodity

It’s nice to escape the office every once and a while with your coworkers. You can get to know people fairly well sharing a desk with them or working on mutual projects, but it is even better to have a little fun together away from the office. Therefore I was looking forward to our annual clean-up day. Every year the company organizes a volunteer team to do some kind of clean-up or maintenance work for the community and this year we found ourselves in a nature preserve north of Basel cutting trees and trimming hedges along a stream that feeds into some wetlands. It is not often I do so much real (i.e. manual) work, and though my shoulders were aching a bit, it was a gorgeous autumn day and we had a great time outside.

As it turned out, the nature preserve was part of the city’s water works and, as a bonus, we were given a tour of the massive operations after we finished our work. My dad worked for the gas and water utilities of my hometown for most of his life, so I distinctly remember being shown around the filter plant as a kid. These pleasant memories came rushing back as we were shown every part of the Basel city works’ (IWB) water treatment operations.

Where I grew up, we relied on river water, which I think is fairly common in the US, at least in the midwest. Germany, Austria, and Switzerland generally rely on groundwater, which requires a lot less processing. However what is interesting in Basel is that the groundwater supply can’t sustain the city on its own. Fortunately we are directly on the Rhine river supplying a virtually limitless supply of water. So IWB pumps water from the Rhine, does basic sand filtering, and then pumps that water out to the nature preserve, where fields are flooded to reconstitute the water table. The ground does the hard work of filtering and then it is pumped back out of the ground, run through activated charcoal filters before being treated by UV light and sent off to consumers and the reservoirs. It was a fascinating tour and the scale of the operations was impressive not only physically, but also in the amount of data they were handling at any time monitoring pumps, groundwater sensors, reservoir levels, water temperatures, conductivity, pH, etc. Our tour guide said it is a bit funny that though they supply 26 million cubic meters of water every year, most of the time they only see numbers on the screen. Water to them is their hidden (but vitally important) commodity.

Many thanks to my colleague, Artur, who was also busy snapping photos that day and was kind enough to give me permission to use some of them. I have noted which are his in the following gallery.

If you are interested, IWB’s website gives a great overview of their operations along with a nice diagram. Turn on the translation feature of Chrome if you can’t read German.

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