some history and observations on world water day

Title: A woman dropping her tea-cup in horror upon discovering the monstrous contents of a magnified drop of Thames water revealing the impurity of London drinking water

This 1828 caricature shows a woman looking into a microscope to observe the monsters swimming in a drop of London water. In the 1820s, much of London’s drinking water came from the Thames River, which was heavily polluted by the city sewers that emptied into it. A Commission on the London Water Supply that was appointed to investigate this situation issued a report in 1828, which resulted in various improvements. The five water companies that served the north bank of the river upgraded the quality of their water by building reservoirs and taking other measures. However, the people of Southwark (on the south bank of the river) continued to receive contaminated water. The problems were not solved until the 1860s, when London’s present sewerage system was installed by the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) and its engineer, Joseph Bazalgette. Between the appearance of this caricature and the completion of the MBW sewers, London suffered two cholera epidemics: in 1832 (part of the world pandemic of cholera) and in 1854. Looking at a drop of water though a microscope was a popular entertainment offered by travelling showmen who carried the microscopes around in cases on their backs. In this caricature, the showman figure in the extreme lower left corner raises his hat to a water pump and says: “Glad to see you, hope to meet you in every parish through London.” The lettering at the top reads: “Microcosm. Dedicated to the London Water Companies 1 – Brought forth all monstrous, all prodigious things, 2 – Hydras and gorgons, and chimeras dire. Vide Milton.” The latter is a reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost. (Illustrator,  Heath, William (1795-1840)

Today is World Water Day. When one talks about public water one is also talking about sewerage. As it is it is difficult to garner much enthusiasms or concern ( in the U.S. anyway) about the supply of water or its cleanliness. Renaming  WWD World Sewerage day would probably not do much to remedy the situation. If some dystopian future awaits us the first thing people will become acutely aware of is water. That camo suit might help you hide in the woods and there always seems to be plenty of canned goods left on store shelves in the movie version. Suddenly clean water for drinking and relatively clean water for bathing might even surpass those thoughts we all supposedly have about sex every few minutes.

One of the first major water, thus sewer projects in the U.S. was that of New York City. Among the materials used in the first generation attempt were pine staves used in power plant built in 1850. Amazingly they were still in pretty good shape when they were dug up for a renewal project in 1913 and replaced, wait for it…with Douglas fir. Lots of interesting photos and a sewer map here.

llustration showing construction of a large sewer using new tunnelling methods in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1880s.

Source: “The Knickerbocker Avenue Extension Sewer, Brooklyn, N.Y.,” Scientific American, Volume LIII, No. 24 (12 December 1885), cover. Collection of Jon C. Schladweiler, Pima County Wastewater Management Department.

In some more recent news, A Fix for America’s Silent Sewer Scourge

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 40 million Americans living in 770 communities, mostly in the Northeast, Great Lakes, and Pacific Northwest, still rely on combined sewers.

Why is this a problem? These Victorian-era water management systems collect sewage and stormwater runoff in the same network of pipes. During heavy storms, overwhelmed systems flood streets and basements and discharge a variety of bacteria and toxic chemicals.

In 1994, the EPA required these municipalities to make improvements to reduce overflows and health concerns. Six years later, Congress required municipalities to comply as part of the Clean Water Act. Many major cities have since begun planning for hundred-million-dollar fixes, addressing failing pipes and networks as well as system overflows.

In an effort to develop more affordable and effective methods of compliance, one Midwestern group thinks it has a superior solution: EmNet’s Combined Sewer Overflow Network relies on wireless sensors installed on the underside of manhole covers to monitor water levels at various points across a city. The sensors broadcast data via simple radio waves to a central monitoring facility, and can send messages telling smart valves to open or shut during times of peak water flow.

If it hits the ground – old motor oil, cooking grease, animal waste – it ends up either in the sewer system or a body of water – oceans, lakes, rivers. No city can function for long without a properly functioning water and sewer system. Anyone who wants to do anything from the time they get up until the time they go to sleep needs some clean water and someplace for the water they did not use and the water they dirtied, to go. This requirement does not discriminate on the basis of color, religion, gender or national origin. It does not discriminate between rich and poor though the wealthy tend to use more, directly and indirectly. The basic need for clean water and sewerage has no respect for wealth or poverty. It does not have feelings about those states of being one way or the other. barely made it through school, which you thought was like dude, a total waste of your time fu*k this sh*t education. Water does not care. Lack of it will kill you as quickly as a Princeton PhD. Not having that education, not paying attention, not reading, not caring, not making an effort. You will not know, thus not care much about water issues. All you know is you turn on a valve, the water comes out. It’s not as good as beer or Pepsi, but it’ll do the day before payday. Think you’re an island of independence, smart, educated, a rugged individualist that don’t need no stink’n gov’mint. Maybe you could reg up your own personal water and sewer system. How about all the people you depend on to buy your products or services so you can have the latest and greatest in lifestyle enhancement. Deep down, you hate to admit it, but YOU NEED some help. You need something so basic, so elementary as a water and sewer system not just for your grand rugged individual self, but you need it for …oh the irony…the sake of others. Because as even George Constanza once noted, we live in a society.