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History of Wastewater Treatment in the United States

Overview of Great Lakes Wastewater Management
The Great Lakes Watershed
History of U.S. Wastewater Management
Risks and Problems
Milwaukee, WI
Chicago, IL
Detroit, MI
Citizen Groups
Rehabilitation and Action Plan
               It was not until well into the 19th century that sewerage was implemented in the U.S. Around this time, new stresses and demands were introduced to urban environments that required cities to develop sewage systems. According to Historian Joel A. Tarr, “the adoption of two new technologies – piped-in water and the water closet – combined with higher urban densities to cause the breakdown of the cesspool-privy vault system of waste removal and to generate excessive nuisances and health hazards” (Tarr, 233). A labor and capital intensive “interim” technology was implemented using vacuum pumps and horse-drawn tank trucks for waste removal, but it was not long before this technology was replaced by “the water-carriage technology” (a.k.a. “sewerage”) as the method of waste management (Tarr, 233). Municipal sewer systems were first constructed in the U.S. in the 1850’s, with the city of Chicago being one of the first in 1856 (Tarr, 237). However, it was not until the 1870’s that this technology was wholly adopted and construction rates took off. By 1909, “85 percent of the population in cities with populations of over 300,000 was served by sewers” (Tarr, 237). Most large cities installed combined sewers to manage human and storm wastes in the same pipe (Tarr, 237).

            The municipal sewer system technology advanced before water treatment technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: “Most urban policymakers and their consulting engineers assumed…that dumping raw sewage into streams was adequate treatment because of the self-purifying nature of running water. Although biologists, chemists, and sanitary engineers were seriously questioning the validity of this hypothesis by the 1890’s, as late as 1909, 88 percent of the wastewater of the sewered population was disposed of in waterways without treatment” (Tarr, 238-239).
At this time, most cities drew their water from streams and lakes – the same streams and lakes that were receiving untreated wastewater from those and other cities. This correlated to a “large increase in mortality and morbidity from typhoid fever and other infectious waterborne diseases” (Tarr, 239). Engineers were forced to find a quick “solution” to this unexpected effect of sewerage by implementing filtration at the intake of water supplies (Tarr, 242).

          As late as the 1930’s, “not only did the great majority of urban populations dispose of their untreated sewage by dilution in waterways, but their numbers were actually increasing over those who were treating their sewage before discharge” (Tarr, 246). For instance, the city of Detroit did not built its wastewater treatment plant until 1940. In the early 1970’s, approximately 10 percent of Chicago’s sewage still went completely untreated (Cain, 371). And even today, with frequent CSOs and SSOs, most urban centers in the U.S.
dump untreated wastewater directly into water sources regularly. As Joel A. Tarr concludes, “little attempt has been made until recently to search for waste removal and disposal alternatives. The society therefore continues to struggle with the problems of a waste removal technology based on concepts over a century old” (Tarr, 263).

construction of sewer pipe
Constructing Milwaukee's sewer system in the 1920's.

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