Impacts on Water Resources Users

Sewer is an Old English word meaning "seaward." As the name suggests, from the 1500s through mid-1800s, London's sewers were nothing more than open ditches draining wastewater seaward via the Thames River. The year 1858, also known as the year of "The Great Stink," brought matters to a head. That summer, the stench from the Thames drove people out of the city by the thousands. The windows of the Par liament building had to be draped with curtains soaked in chloride of lime. By the end of the summer session, even the most traditional members had to agree: something had to be done about wastewater.

In response, London officials abolished cesspools and made the use of water closets, drainage pipes, and centralized sewer collection systems mandatory. Over in the United States, city officials were also feeling the pressure of a populace weary of the noxious conditions associated with open sewers. In 1910, about 10% of the urban population was serviced by centralized collection systems (FWPCA, 1969). This number increased steadily in the following decades; by 1940, 70.5 million persons (53% of the population) were served by them. Unfortunately, treating drinking water with chlorine and developing efficient sewage collection systems did little to help water resources users. Raw sewage deposited into streams, lakes, and estuaries was still raw sewage, whether it was discharged through an engineered wastewater collection system or through an open ditch. Collection systems just made the dumping more efficient and complete. And though chlorine proved to be a godsend for public health, it treated only a pollution symptom, not the cause. Its success, unfortunately, tended to divert attention away from installing wastewater treatment as a means of protecting public health (Bulloch, 1989).

Several studies conducted around the turn of the twentieth century documented increasingly noxious conditions in several well-known rivers receiving untreated urban discharges. These included the Merrimack River (1908), Passaic River (1896), Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal (1900), and Blackstone River (1890). Looking beyond the effects of water quality on supply users, scientists also began to examine the effect urban discharges were having on stream biota. Studies were conducted in places like the Sangamon River in Illinois (1929) (Eddy, 1932), the Potomac River (19131920), and the Shenandoah River (1947-1948) (Henderson, 1949). These and other early investigations are an invaluable starting point for assessing long-term trends in the surface water environment. At the turn of the twentieth century, public officials focused most of their attention on water supply users. The users demanded and received the two services most important to them: the delivery of clean water and the collection and removal of wastewater. Support for water resources users, on the other hand, was minimal. Generally, these users captured the attention of city leaders only when conditions reached crisis levels. Then, in most cases, the response was to deal with ways to alleviate the symptom rather than the cause of water pollution.

In Chicago, for example, officials became concerned about the increasing amount of urban water pollution flowing into their backyard water supply source, Lake Michigan. In response, they built the Chicago Drainage Canal, which diverted sewage away from the lake and directed it to the Des Plaines River, a tributary that emptied into the Mississippi River.

After the canal opened in 1900, officials in the downstream city of St. Louis fumed. They quickly initiated proceedings in the Supreme Court of the United States against the state of Illinois and the Sanitary District of Chicago. Though St. Louis eventually lost its case because the city could not prove direct harm to its water supply from its upstream neighbor, the episode underscored the fact that effective wastewater treatment was a critical component in the modern urban water cycle.

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