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History of Urban Water Systems

Introduction to Aqueducts

During the early days of Rome the water supply came from the River Tiber, wells, and springs. It was no wonder that Father Tiber was an important deity to the Romans. The Tiber, however, is a very muddy river and also received all the refuse from the Cloaca Maxima, the sewer which flowed under the Forum Roman. By the late 4th century, when the Romans were engaged in the second Samnite War, they urgently needed an alternate water supply. Not only was the water supply no longer reliable for the growing Roman population, it was also possible that enemies of Rome could poison the supply. Continued ...

A historical perspective on the development of urban water systems
by © William James, Professor of Water Resources Engineering
University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
Pont Du Gard in France (19 BC)

Water supply engineering is a historic and noble profession: wherever people fight for water, or their water is inadequate or polluted, or they spend effort and time collecting it, or returning their waste products to the environment, life is harsh and there is little art. Engineers provide the means for an enlightened life, a point not often appreciated (try reminding your companion of it next time you visit the ballet)! Professor James' lecture is accompanied by a large collection of overhead transparencies and 35 mm colour slides such as the above slide showing the Pont Du Gard in France (19 BC).

Ancient Egyptians drinking water History of Drinking Water

The history of water treatment is still being written, as discoveries continue to document its origins. Early Egyptian paintings from the 13th and 15th centuries B.C. depict sedimentation apparatus and wick siphons, and it is speculated that the ancients utilized alum to remove suspended solids. Today the American Water Works Association leads the effort to advance science, technology, consumer awareness, management, conservation and government policies related to drinking water.

A Brief History of Drinking Water
by Ellen L. Hall and Andrea M. Dietrich
State of Rhode Island Water Resources Board

The use of alum to remove suspended solids may have first occurred in Egypt. Among other early advances, Mayan civilizations developed remarkably complex hydraulic systems for water distribution. An ancient Hindu source gives what may have been the first drinking water standard, written at least 4,000 years ago; it directed people to heat foul water by boiling and exposing to sunlight and by dipping seven times into a piece of hot copper, then to filter and cool in an earthen vessel.

A typhoid epidemic in 1850s London was associated with bad water, but the actual cause of the disease was unknown. British physician Sir John Snow traced the 1854-55 cholera outbreak in London to sewage contamination of a particular public well. His discovery became known as the Broad Street Pump Affair.

The Hidden Flow of History:
The Old Croton Aqueduct in New York City
by Steve Duncan

In 1842, the original Croton Aqueduct was completed under Chief Engineer John B. Jervis, providing the thirsty, dirty city of New York with one of the preeminent municipal water supplies in the world. It was a magnificent work of engineering, less visible in its structure than other marvels of the century such as the expanding national railroad network or the Erie canal, but it was no less significant than any of these. The city, which had been suffering from many problems associated with water shortages–such as Asiatic Cholera and severe fires-- needed the water desperately. Before the Aqueduct's completion, the city had drawn its very scant water from increasingly stagnant wells; in fact, it is estimated that in 1830, the city's population of 202,000 was producing approximately 100 tons of excrement every day, which was being deposited into this same soil from which they drew their drinking water

Old Groton Aqueduct

The Old Croton Aqueduct supplied New York City's fresh water from the 1840s until early in the 20th century. It was the largest engineering project that had ever been undertaken in the United States when it was built in the 1840s. It was taken completely out of service by 1950, and today much of the 40-mile tunnel stands empty, inaccessible, and forgotten underground. Steve at Undercity.org is an historian, photographer, and writer, based in Brooklyn, NY. He is also an “urban explorer”-- who tries to find the hidden and forgotten spaces and bits of history that exist in every man-made environment, and especially in large cities.

He says, "I’m particularly fascinated by underground infrastructure and environments. One of the most interesting things I’ve found is that, especially in cities, going underground means going back in time, and seeing things that have remained unchanged and perhaps unseen since they were first constructed fifty, a hundred, or a hundred and fifty years ago."

These pictures are not of a space station or space ship but of Japanese sewer system. Japanese water drainage system, looks like an alien space ship.

Making Great Breakthroughs - All about the Sewage Works in Japan
(Japan Sewage Works Association: Tokyo, ca. 2002), pp. 1-56.

The first sewerage system in Japan can be seen in the large communities in the Yayoi Period (approximately 2,200 years ago). In the Nara Period (about 1,300 years ago), a drainage system network ran throughout the city in the Heijo-kyo capital area. In the Azuchi-momoyama Period (approximately 430 years ago), a stone culvert called the Taiko Sewerage was built around Osaka Castle. It is still in use today.

Histories of Municipal
Water and Sewer Companies

Boston Sewerage Tour - Wastewater History
Environmental History of Water and Sanitation in Tampere, Finland, 1835-1921
City of New York
City of Independence, Missouri
Rincon del Diablo Municipal Water District
Washington Public Utility Districts Associatiion
City of Lake Charles, LA
Newport News, VA Waterworks
City of San Diego, CA
Denver Water, Denver, CO
City of Mobile, AL
City of Newark, NJ Water and Sewer
District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority
The WSSC -- A Thumbnail History
Waters of the City of Rome
A historical perspective on the development of urban water systems

Mulholland The Story of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

From the time that Los Angeles was first founded in 1769, the small settlement had depended upon its own river for water. The 11 families that settled in the area dammed up the Los Angeles River and built canals to irrigate fields. But as the city grew, those in charge of supplying the growing population with water knew the small meandering river could not meet future demands.

William Mulholland, an immigrant from Belast, Ireland, went to work for the Los Angeles City Water Company in 1878 as a ditch tender. When he became superintendent of the water company at the age of 31, Mulholland began to search for a new water supply. Mulholland predicted that Los Angeles would have a population of almost 260,000 the day the aqueduct opened. But in 1913 Los Angeles had reached the dizzying figure of 485,000 residents. Within ten years Mulholland and others would be looking for water again.

Philadelphia, PA Water Department
Fairmount Water Works, Phila., PA
The nation’s first municipal water treatment center.

The Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center is a very hands-on, very interactive exhibit using computers, joysticks, buttons and videos to highlight the City’s water resources. Push one button to create a rainstorm and follow the water’s path through watersheds. Push another and you’re operating the watershed flight controller. Or follow the cycle of water from the river to your kitchen sink. A short video traces the origins of the Water Works, the nation’s first municipal water system, and makes the engineering not only understandable but interesting, too.

The Water Treatment Authority is most responsible for providing safe drinking water for families in homes throughout Philadelphia. Just how does Philadelphia get its drinking water? The process is amazing. Consider that it takes between thirty-four and thirty-nine hours for water to be processed from beginning to end. The beginning is the Schuylkill River. The end is your faucet. Just think. Each fluid ounce of water that we waste requires at least thirty-four hours to be replaced. Each gallon of water needlessly flushed away took thirty-four hours to prepare.

Conference on Water History

Delft, the Netherlands
June 16-19 2010

The Water History Conference of the International Water History Association in Delft, the Netherlands, will be a unique opportunity to exchange and develop new insights on the history of our most precious resource. The conference is co-organized by IWHA, Delft University of Technology and UNESCO-IHE.

Drinking Water and Health: What you need to know

The Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water (OGWDW), together with states, tribes, and its many partners, protects public health by ensuring safe drinking water and protecting ground water. OGWDW, along with EPA's ten regional drinking water programs, oversees implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is the national law safeguarding tap water in America.

Tracking Down the Roots of Our Sanitary Sewers

Over the past ten years, Jon Schladweiler, the Historian of the Arizona Water & Pollution Control Association, has researched and collected materials related to the history of sewage conveyance systems. Many of these have been displayed in a traveling exhibit entitled "The Collection Systems Historical Photo and Artifacts Display." The overall collection of sewer history materials covers the era from approximately 3500 BCE through the 1930s CE.

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