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Infrastructure: Water and Sewers

Summary and Keywords

Urban water supply and sewage disposal facilities are critical parts of the urban infrastructure. They have enabled cities and their metropolitan areas to function as centers of commerce, industry, entertainment, and human habitation. The evolution of water supply and sewage disposal systems in American cities from 1800 to 2015 is examined, with a focus on major turning points especially in regard to technological decisions, public policy, and environmental and public health issues.

Keywords: infrastructure, water supply, sewers, sewage treatment, storm water, pollution, public health

Urban infrastructure includes the technological framework for the operations of a city: water supply and sewer lines; roads, bridges, and transit networks; and power and communications systems. These facilities allow cities and their metropolitan areas to function as centers of commerce, industry, entertainment, and residence. Of these infrastructure systems, none is more important for the urban quality of life and the quality of its environment than those relating to water supply, wastewater removal, and storm water disposal.

Cities cannot exist without adequate supplies of water. Vital functions require water: drinking, cooking, sanitation, commercial and industrial needs, firefighting, and street cleansing. The disposal of wastewater, including both sewage and storm water, is a second and related critical function. U.S. water and sewer infrastructure followed a five-stage evolution during different and often overlapping periods. These stages were:

  1. 1. Development and use of piped-in water

  2. 2. Sewage system construction

  3. 3. Sewage pollution and water treatment

  4. 4. Sewage treatment

  5. 5. Storm water and the development of green infrastructure

Water Supply

Water supply systems were the earliest centralized infrastructure systems provided by cities. Throughout the 19th century increasingly large numbers of city residents shifted from dependence on local water sources such as wells, ponds, cisterns, or vendors to piped-in water to fill their needs. The shift to centralized water systems, according to historian Carl Smith, raised four vital questions: how was the “public good” to be defined at a time of rapid urban change; how did city or “manufactured” water blur the line between nature and the built environment; how did acquiring city water connect “one’s human body” to the “body of the city” but separate it from the non-connected population; and how did urbanites cope with the issue of raising funds for a capital-intensive waterworks when it meant encumbering the future through bonds?1

These issues dominated the discussions that ensued as 19th-century cities constructed capital-intensive and centralized water systems. Local sources of water became increasingly contaminated, compelling urbanites to seek other sources of supply. The initial motivation for centralized water systems originating from non-local sources of supply involved a desire for more copious and less-polluted water supplies, concern over threats to the public health from epidemics generated by decaying organic materials, inadequate water to flush filthy streets, and the insufficiency of supplies to control the fires that frequently raged through antebellum cities. In addition, as cities became more industrialized, industrialists demanded a pure and abundant supply of water for their various processes.2

Starting with Philadelphia in 1799, coalitions of commercial elites, industrialists, and sanitarians in different cities pushed for the construction of public and private waterworks. Progress was relatively slow because of the complexity of technical, social, and financial issues involved and by 1850 only about 36 percent of cities (eighty-four in total) possessed waterworks.3 Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, for instance, built waterworks in the 1820s drawing from local rivers. New York City and Boston, after prolonged debate, elected to draw their supplies from upcountry sources—New York in 1842 via the Croton Aqueduct and Boston in 1848, via the Cochituate Aqueduct.4 These systems used combinations of steam pumps, gravity, reservoirs, and water towers to draw water from various sources, store it, and distribute it through the city.

Many of the initial waterworks were privately owned. By 1860, however, the sixteen largest cities had municipally owned systems, as private companies failed to provide the water resources for various urban needs such as firefighting and protecting the public health. By 1880 the number of public and private water supply systems were approximately equal, but private providers tended to be located in smaller cities, as an increasingly large percentage of the urban population was served by municipal waterworks. The increase in public rather than private provision of water highlights the widespread belief that water was too important to city life to be left to the private profit-making sector.5

Piped-in water was usually provided first to commercial and elite living areas that could pay for the service. Working-class neighborhoods were supplied, if at all, through street corner spigots or wells. In cities with private companies, such as Baltimore up to l854, water supply was class structured. The affluent residential districts and the central business district received the piped water of a private corporation for an annual fee while the poor districts depended on shallow polluted wells supplied by city pumps. Historian Robin L. Einhorn calls this a “segmented system”—a system that provided benefits to those who paid for them but that also “made the American urban landscape a physical expression of political inequality.”6 The absence of meters, the use of annual flat charges, and the presence of free hydrants, as well as technological factors such as leaky pipes, faulty pumps, and bad connections, drove high rates of water wastage.

Over time, expansion of water supply systems and their increasing public ownership, in spite of inequities in provision, improved the quality of urban life as water gradually spread to previously underserved neighborhoods. The number of waterworks in the nation increased from l, 878 in l890 to 9,850 in 1924. Most works drew on local sources such as groundwater, lakes, and rivers and distant sources such as protected watersheds. As water use increased, cities such as New York (Catskills), Los Angeles (Owens Valley) and San Francisco (Hetch Hetchy Valley) sought water from more and more distant sources. By extending their ecological footprints, such cities disrupted local ecologies, communities, and economies.7

The provision of running water to households increased the use of domestic water-using appliances such as sinks, baths, and showers, providing conveniences and improved domestic sanitation. Such water-using appliances, however, also increased the flows of gray and black wastewater that needed disposal. The water closet, which discharged water contaminated with fecal matter, was a major polluting technology. Flows from water closets were often discharged into inadequately maintained privies and cesspools; these proved simply inadequate to handle the larger wastewater flows.8 Even when sewers were available, householders often failed to connect them to their water closets because of the expense. In Pittsburgh in 1881, for instance, only about 1,500 of the city’s 6,500 water closets were connected to street sewers; the remainder flowed into privies and cesspools. By 1880, although the data are imprecise, approximately one-quarter of urban households had water closets (usually of the pan or hopper type), while the remainder still depended on privy vaults.9

Wastewater from overcharged privies and cesspools produced nuisance problems and sanitary hazards. Soils became saturated, cellars flooded with stagnant and offensive fluids, and cesspools and privies had to be frequently emptied. Wastes often leaked into groundwater, polluting wells and streams. Overwhelmed by the nuisances, cities desperately sought other solutions for wastewater disposal. Among the different approaches were the earth closet as a substitute for the water closet, the odorless excavator, a vacuum pump to empty the contents of cesspools and privies into a horse-drawn tank truck for removal, and sewage farms. Scavengers often collected wastes and sold them to farmers for fertilizer.10 None of these approaches proved fully successful, as the technology of wastewater disposal lagged behind that of water supply.

Sewer Systems

Water supply and sewer systems should ideally have been linked as critical urban hydraulic systems. Because of financial constraints and underestimates regarding future water use, however, cities almost never constructed sewer systems when they built waterworks.11 While some private and public underground sewers existed in larger cities in the 19th century, they were largely intended for storm water drainage from streets rather than human waste removal. In New York, for instance, the existing sewers were unplanned—some were circular while others were elliptical; some were constructed of stone and others of brick. A number of streets had private sewers that made their own path to the river. The absence of maps or system records meant that maintenance was impossible, even if municipal authorities were so inclined. These sewers usually lacked self-cleansing characteristics and became “sewers of deposit,” rather than of removal. Many cities passed ordinances forbidding the placing of human wastes in them, although after 1845 the New York City Council permitted householders to connect their drains to them.12

The majority of 19th-century cities, however, had no underground drains. Street gutters of wood or stone, either on the side or in the middle of the roadway, provided for surface storm water. Private householders often constructed drains to the street gutters to remove storm water from cellars. The focus on storm water removal from streets reflected the difficulty of maintaining commerce in flooded streets, the threat of flooded basements, and the belief that health hazards (the “filth theory”) could arise from decaying stagnant wastes in streets.

Overflowing cesspools and privies created both nuisances and public health concerns. During most of the 19th century, physicians generally divided into two groups: contagionists and anticontagionists. The former maintained that epidemic disease was transmitted by contact with a diseased person or carrier, a belief that often led to quarantines to prevent diseased individuals from entering the city. Anticontagionists held that vitiated or impure air (“miasmas”) arising from conditions such as putrefying organic matters, feces, exhalations from swamps, and stagnant pools, or human and animal crowding, resulted in sickness and epidemics. By the latter half of the 19th century the majority of physicians and sanitarians were anticontagionists who believed that filth conditions accelerated the spread of contagious disease, thus underscoring demands by the sanitary movement for urban environmental improvements.13

Increasingly urban public figures realized that the only solution to the wastewater problem was construction of a self-cleansing underground system of pipes or sewers that used household water supply to transport human wastes to a point of disposal—the water carriage system. This approach was modeled on the work of the British sanitarian Edwin Chadwick in the 1840s. He believed that odors from decaying organic matter caused the spread of many fatal diseases. Fecal matter in particular needed to be swiftly transported from the vicinity of the household.14 While considerable opposition to Chadwick’s theories existed in Great Britain, they strongly influenced American sanitarians concerning the benefits of systematic sewerage. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, visits to sewerage works in cities in Great Britain and Europe were almost mandatory for American engineers involved in planning new sewerage systems. Water-carriage technology provides a good example of the international interchange and transfer of ideas and experience concerning urban infrastructure.15

Before cities could embark on major centralized sewer-building projects, however, they had to confront issues similar to those when they constructed water supply systems: how to pay for them and what technology to adopt. In addition, with wastewater, cities had to address the disposal issue. Brooklyn, Chicago, and Jersey City constructed sewer systems in the 1850s, but the great burst of sewer construction occurred after 1890, as engineers and sanitarians formulated fuller answers to key questions of technology choice and disposal. The construction of planned sewage systems, argued their promoters, would substitute a systematic, sanitary, and self-acting technological system for a set of haphazard, inefficient, and unhealthful methods for dealing with the problems of human wastes, wastewater, and storm water.

The debate focused on technology choice—should the sewer system be a separate, small pipe system that carried only domestic and industrial wastes, the technology advocated by the famous sanitarian Col. George E. Waring Jr.? Or should it be a larger, combined system that could accommodate both wastewater and storm water, as sanitary engineer Rudolf Hering advocated?16 Many physicians, believers in the filth theory of disease, preferred the separate system because they argued it would protect health by removing wastes from the household before they had begun to generate disease-causing miasmas. Storm water, they maintained, was a secondary matter and could be handled by surface conduits. Engineers from the new profession of sanitary engineering, however, largely took a different position. They argued that sanitary wastes and storm water were equally important and that a large pipe system that accommodated both was more economical. In addition, they maintained that the separate system had no health advantages over the combined.17

Large cities, faced with the need to control storm water in commercial districts as well as domestic wastes, elected to build combined sewers. Smaller cities, on the other hand, in order to lower costs, installed small-pipe separate sewers for domestic wastes, usually leaving storm water to run off on the surface. Between 1890 and 1909, the total miles of sewers in the nation’s cities increased from approximately 6,000 to about 25,000 miles; sewers served more than 70 percent of the residents in cities of over 50,000 population. In 1909 cities with more than 300,000 residents had almost 10,000 miles of combined sewers and less than a thousand miles of separate sewers; cities with populations between 30,000 and 50,000 had about 1,200 miles of sanitary sewers and just more than 1,500 miles of combined. 18 This immense construction was facilitated by the growth of investment banking, which made supplies of capital more accessible to municipal borrowers. Systems of piped sewerage in the United States were generally funded by a combination of user fees, assessments on abutting property holders, bonds, and general tax revenues.19

Sewage Pollution and Water Treatment

The use of combined rather than separate sewers, given the available treatment technology in the late 19th and early 20th century, increased the costs of both wastewater treatment and resource recovery. In addition, the decision had large consequences in regard to water quality in the future because combined sewer overflows on rainy days bypassed sewage treatment plants and discharged raw sewage into rivers. Before sewerage treatments plants were available, however, most urban policymakers and engineers believed that dumping raw sewage into streams was adequate treatment because of the self-purifying nature of running water. By the 1890s, however, biologists, chemists, and sanitary engineers seriously questioned this hypothesis. Nevertheless, as late as 1909, municipalities discharged 88 percent of the wastewater of the sewered population in waterways without treatment.20 Where treatment was utilized at the beginning of the 20th century, it was only to prevent nuisance rather than to avoid contamination of drinking water downstream.

The disposal of untreated sewage in streams and lakes from which other cities drew their water supplies caused large increases in mortality and morbidity from typhoid fever and other infectious waterborne diseases. Bacterial researchers, following the seminal work of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, identified the processes involved in such waterborne disease as germ theory gradually replaced the filth theory in public health considerations. In the early 1890s, biologist William T. Sedgwick and an interdisciplinary team at the Massachusetts Board of Health’s Lawrence Experiment Station clarified the etiology of typhoid fever and confirmed its relationship to sewage-polluted waterways.21 The irony was clear: cities had adopted water-carriage technology because they expected local health benefits, but disposal practices produced serious health problems for downstream users. This increased morbidity and mortality was an unanticipated impact of sewerage technology—a rise in health costs where health benefits had been predicted. Because these costs were often borne by downstream users, in the absence of alternatives, cities continued to build sewer systems and to dispose of untreated wastes in adjacent waterways.

Sanitarians and progressive reformers advocated laws and institutions to address the threats to health from urban sewage-disposal practices. One result was the creation of state boards of health (beginning with Massachusetts in 1869) and the passage of legislation to protect water quality. In 1905, the U.S. Geological Survey published its Review of the Laws Forbidding Pollution of Inland Waters in the United States, listing thirty-six states with some legislation protecting drinking water. Eight states had “unusual and stringent” laws, usually passed in response to severe typhoid epidemics. State boards of health, whether through merely advisory powers or through stricter enforcement provisions, were usually responsible for protecting water quality.22

In 1909, the raw sewage of 88 percent of the urban population was discharged into neighboring water bodies from which they often drew their water supplies or into which upstream cities discharged their sewage. Cities that drew their water supplies from neighboring rivers and lakes often experienced high death rates from typhoid fever. In 1900, for instance, Pittsburgh had a typhoid fever mortality rate of 144 per 100,000, Richmond 104, and Washington, D.C., 80. In contrast, cities that drew their water supplies from protected upstream watersheds, such as Boston and New York, had much lower rates.23

Sanitary engineers had originally justified the discharge of sewage into streams on the basis of the concept of the self-purifying nature of running water, later further elaborated as the theory of dilution—that stream flow would disperse the sewage before it created problems. Rivers were conceptualized as “a kind of ‘organic machine’ for the processing of human waste,” the social utility of which rested upon changing concepts of health risks and other water resource uses.24 As the Engineering Record noted in 1909, “it is often more equitable to all concerned for an upper riparian city to discharge its sewage into a stream and a lower riparian city to filter the water of the same stream for a domestic supply, than for the former city to be forced to put in sewage treatment works.”25

In the late 19th century and the initial decades of the 20th century, the options for dealing with sewage pollution of drinking water supplies were relatively limited. Among them were sewage treatment through sewage farming (mainly in the West) and intermittent filtration (mainly in New England), but both were land-intensive and impractical with sewage output from combined systems used by the majority of cities. Another was to shift the municipal water supply from a local to a distant and protected watershed, a course followed by Jersey City and Newark. In the late 1890s, however, another option appeared for cities drawing their water supplies from sewage-polluted rivers. This was water filtration by either slow sand or mechanical filtration. Many inland cities installed mechanical or sand filters in the years after 1897, resulting in sharp declines in morbidity and mortality rates from typhoid fever as well as other diseases. In addition, beginning in 1908, the use of chlorination to disinfect water supplies became increasingly common, driving down typhoid rates even further.26

Water filtration, however, did not remove the sewage from the rivers and lakes. Some health authorities argued that cities should both filter their water and treat their sewage in order to protect both their own water supply and that of downstream cities. Most sanitary engineers took an opposite position, arguing, as did Allen Hazen in, Clean Water and How to Get It (1907), that “the discharge of crude sewage from the great majority of cities is not locally objectionable in any way to justify the cost of sewage purification.” Hazen maintained that downstream cities should filter their water to protect the public health, and sewage purification should be utilized only to prevent nuisances such as odors and floating solids.27

Sewage Treatment

By the beginning of World War I, the perspective of sanitary engineers on the question of the disposal of raw sewage into streams had triumphed over that of the “sentimentalists and medical authorities” (sanitary engineer George W. Fuller’s characterization) who opposed the use of streams for disposal. Essentially, the engineering position was that the dilution power of streams should be utilized to its fullest for sewage disposal, as long as no danger was posed to the public health or to property rights and no nuisance created. Water filtration and chlorination could protect the public from waterborne disease.28

The practical consequences of this position was that in the period from 1910 to 1930, while the population newly served by sewers rose by over 25 million, the number whose sewage was treated rose by only 13.5 million. At the same time, the increase in the population receiving treated water was approximately 33 million. In 1930, not only did the great majority of urban populations dispose of their untreated sewage by dilution in waterways, but also their numbers were actually increasing over those who were treating their sewage before discharge. Because of water filtration and chlorination, however, waterborne infectious disease had greatly diminished and the earlier crisis atmosphere that had led to the first state legislation had disappeared.29

Waterway pollution, however, worsened, as industrial discharges increasingly joined untreated municipal discharges in water bodies. Raw sewage and industrial wastes overwhelmed the oxidation capacity of rivers, creating offensive sights and smells. Water treatment had sharply reduced typhoid deaths, but diarrhea and enteritis death rates remained elevated. Fish were absent from long dead stretches of the rivers, and chemical pollution fouled the taste of many drinking water supplies as waste disposal in waterways created an ecological footprint that threatened the health of downstream cities. 30

Filtration and chlorination had provided one safety net in regard to drinking water quality, but many sanitarians and public health physicians believed that it was necessary to treat urban sewage for maximum protection. Professional, business, and medical groups protested against sewage disposal by dilution only, concerned that further safeguards against bacterial pollution were necessary. They demanded that municipalities treat their sewage and agitated for state laws against stream pollution.

In the years after the turn of the century, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Vermont, responding to a series of severe typhoid epidemics, authorized state boards of health to control sewage disposal in streams. In addition, the federal government became involved through the work of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS). In 1914, the USPHS established the first federal drinking water standards.31 While these applied only to water served on interstate carriers, it became widely accepted as a relevant standard. Regulatory authority over pollution, however, remained limited, and experimentation with various methods of sewage treatment accelerated.

The various technologies developed included sewage farming, intermittent filtration, contact filters and trickling filters (biologically based), septic and Imhoff tanks, and sewage disinfection. The most effective treatment technology, however, was the activated sludge process developed in Great Britain in 1913. This process involved the introduction of oxygen into a mixture of screened treated wastewater combined with organisms to develop a biological floc or sludge, reducing the organic content of sewage into carbon dioxide, water, and other inorganic compounds. Experimentation with the process proceeded in a number of major cities in the 1920s, with more widespread adoption in the 1930s. In 1939 Chicago operated the world’s largest activated sludge plant.32

The 1920s and 1930s also witnessed an increasing concern with industrial wastes and their contribution to total pollution load in streams. Initially waterworks laboratories focused on biological concerns and neglected possible impacts by industrial wastes on drinking water supplies. In 1922, however, the Committee on Industrial Wastes in Relation to Water Supply of the American Water Works Association reported that industrial pollutants had damaged at least 248 water supplies in the United States and Canada. Phenols, petroleum wastes, and mine acid drainage were matters of special concern. Still, USPHS leaders were reluctant to act against industrial pollutants because they believed that the organization’s charter limited them to studying the effects of pollution on the public health.33

A marked change regarding the relationship of different governmental bodies to infrastructure development in water supply and sewers emerged after 1930. Previously, all water supply and sewer construction was the responsibility of municipalities, which used a variety of financial instruments such as bonds, assessments, and user fees to pay for them. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, however, brought about a revolution in terms of the involvement of the federal government in public works and infrastructure provision. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) employed over 4 million workers in tasks such as road building and construction of sewer lines, while its successor, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), was also involved in many public works programs.34

The foremost contributor to the domains of water supply, sewage, and sewage treatment construction was the Public Works Administration (PWA). PWA funds accounted for 35 to 50 percent of all new sewer and water supply construction during the l930s. These projects generated a variety of benefits to local communities. New water supply systems, for instance, provided a return by providing improved water supplies and sharply reducing fire insurance premiums. Sewer construction not only provided unemployment relief but also addressed the problems of water pollution control. The administration accelerated investment for sewage treatment facilities by approving only PWA sewer projects that provided for waste treatment. Similarly, the WPA could not construct sanitary sewers unless they were designed to be compatible with treatment works. By l938, federal financing had contributed to the construction of 1,165 of the 1,310 new municipal sewage treatment plants built in the decade. The population served by sewage treatment increased from 2l.5 million in 1932 to more than 39 million by 1939. In 1945, 62.7 percent of people living in sewered communities had treated sewage, although 37.3 percent still disposed of raw sewage into waterways.35

Infrastructure: Water and SewersClick to view larger

Chart 1. Joel A. Tarr, with James McCurley III, Francis C. McMichael, and Terry Yosie, “Water and Wastes: A Retrospective Assessment of Wastewater Technology in the United States, 1800–1932,” Technology and Culture (April 1984) 25: 245.

The decades following World War II were marked by extensive metropolitan growth and by recognition that, in spite of New Deal construction, urban water and sewer infrastructure was in need of renewal. Total spending on new construction for sewer and water systems did not actually reach the 1930 level in constant dollars until 1951. Questions of adequacy of supply were often accompanied by issues of water quality, especially in the face of new concerns over the possible health effects of industrial wastes.

Congress, riven by partisan differences, reacted in a hesitant fashion. In 1948 it approved the Water Pollution Control Act containing limited provisions to abate interstate water pollution and provided financial assistance to municipalities, interstate agencies, and the state for construction of facilities reducing water pollution. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1956 extended these provisions and provided a loan program for construction of sewage treatment facilities. Amendments in 1961 to this act increased the funds available for construction. Still, water and sewer construction did not keep up with metropolitan growth; as new suburban neighborhoods expanded they often depended on home sewage-disposal systems such as septic tanks rather than sewers.36

The decades of the 1960s and 1970s were marked by an increase in environmental consciousness and the rise of the environmental movement. Water pollution was a major concern. Congressional environmentalists, led by Edmund Muskie (D, Maine), pushed for stronger water quality standards, resulting in the Water Quality Act of 1965. This controversial legislation provided for the creation of the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration to enforce higher standards of water quality, taking the responsibility away from the USPHS.

Urban wastewater infrastructure increasingly benefited from federal programs, as the environmental movement stimulated concern about water quality. In 1970 the Nixon administration created the Environmental Protection Agency; one of its main functions was the reduction of water pollution. Congressional passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972 was a major step forward. The law set a number of goals: to attain water quality in navigable waters suitable for fisheries and for swimming by 1983, secondary treatment in all wastewater-treatment plants by 1988, and zero pollutant discharge by 1995. Federal dollars poured into sewer, sewage treatment, and water facilities, especially new construction. Between l967 and l977, Federal expenditures for sewer systems increased from $150 million to $4.052 billion. Localities also increased their spending on wastewater systems, although the nation’s expanding suburbs often lacked centralized wastewater systems.

The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency resulted in a new federal attitude toward infrastructure spending. Government “disinvestment” resulted in sharp cuts in funding for new infrastructure and maintenance of old, causing the deterioration of many systems.37 Engineers and public officials became increasingly concerned over infrastructure decay and its economic and public health implications. At the same time the nation became increasingly aware of new threats to water quality, especially groundwater pollution and nonpoint source pollution. As federal dollars for infrastructure evaporated, states and localities sought to fill the gap. 38

During these decades suburbanization increased at a rapid rate, consuming green fields, increasing erosion, and altering hydrologic patterns, leading to flooding and pollution of rivers and lakes. Many suburban developments were inadequately served by wastewater disposal systems and depended on septic tanks for domestic wastes, threatening groundwater pollution. Suburbs often lacked storm water sewers and rainwater ran off on street surfaces, absorbing pollutants such as oil and salt. Inadequate facilities for storm water disposal increased the pollution load of receiving streams.39 Central cities also suffered greatly from combined and separate sewer overflow problems. Most combined sewers in the nation were constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in larger cities and were designed to discharge untreated sewage into receiving water bodies. They were concentrated in the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, and the Ohio River basin although some West Coast cities were also involved. As sewers were connected to sewage treatment facilities they were increasingly required to construct overflow facilities to protect the sewage treatment plants from being flooded with excess flows. At these overflow points, raw sewage often entered rivers and lakes, causing nuisances and health hazards and violating the Clean Water Act. In the Water Quality Act of 1987, Congress responded to the storm water problem by requiring that industrial dischargers and municipal systems obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Permit by a specific deadline. In 1994, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the CSO Control Policy, the national framework for control of CSOs, through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting program. Even so, the storm water pollution problem persists in many cities, especially in regard to combined sewer overflows.40

Although water pollution remains a pressing concern for metropolitan areas because of infrastructure and policy limitations, the United States has made major progress since 1950 in terms of providing basic water supply and sewer services to its population. In 1950, for instance, 56 percent of the rural population and 11 percent of the urban population lacked full plumbing services. By 2000, only 1 percent of the rural population and 0.5 percent of urban residents lived without them. Those without access to these services tend to be poor minority populations, often living in scattered rural areas.41

Cities and Green Infrastructure

None of the major goals set forth in the Clean Water Act of 1972 were reached by 2000, although the number of people whose wastes are provided with secondary or more advanced wastewater treatment has increased by about 30 percent since 1950. The focus on different sources of pollution, however, has shifted since the 1970s. Much of the emphasis of pollution control from the 1950s–1980s was on point source pollution. The last several decades have been marked, however, by increasing attempts to cope with the threats to water quality from non–point source pollution and combined and separate sewer overflows. These issues largely stemmed from past decisions regarding wastewater collection and disposal practices in regard to both sewage and storm water, especially combined sewers.

Engineers had originally sought to deal with these issues with traditional gray infrastructure such as large collection facilities and storage pipes. After 2000, environmentalists and a new breed of environmental engineers increasingly gave enhanced consideration to green infrastructure in dealing with storm water issues as well as other urban environmental concerns such as heat island effects. Water and sewer systems, therefore, were ideally to be considered as an integrated part of the urban ecology rather than as elements of the built environment imposed upon the city’s ecology.

Green infrastructure is an approach to water management that protects, restores, or mimics the natural hydrological cycle by absorbing water through approaches such as bio-retention systems, permeable pavements, tree planting, and green roofs. In this manner storm water is directed away from sewers, reducing the amount of raw sewage directed into receiving bodies of water. In a sense the pattern regarding storm water has gone full cycle: viewed by engineers for many years as something to be eliminated from the city as a nuisance and flooding threat, it is now to be retained, as much as possible, on site. In this manner sewage flows into rivers are reduced, sewage treatment facilities less burdened, and receiving water bodies cleaner.42


For a period of more than two hundred years, American cities and metropolitan areas have struggled to construct infrastructure to provide sanitary drinking water to their populations and to dispose of wastewater in a manner that did not create nuisances and endanger the public health. In most cases engineers imposed their technological infrastructures on the urban ecology rather than attempting to integrate them into the environment, frequently burying streams in pipes and changing hydrological patterns. Due to financial and technological limitations, cities constructed additions to their water and wastewater systems incrementally, often resulting in poor systems integration. Thus, water systems were constructed without adequate consideration of wastewater disposal; sewage was disposed in neighboring water bodies without full consideration of its impact on downstream cities; and drinking water but not sewage was treated. When sewage treatment plants were constructed, they were often inadequate to address enlarged storm water flows. Raw sewage continued to enter and pollute receiving water bodies.

From the late 19th century and into the 20th century sanitary engineers made major gains in pollution control and significantly improved the public health. They continued to believe in the efficacy of traditional gray infrastructure, however—large concrete and brick pipes, for instance—even when its limitations were becoming obvious. They constructed sewer systems that emphasized sewer sheds based on population locations rather than as elements to be integrated into natural watersheds. Since the launching of the environmental movement, environmental engineering has supplanted sanitary engineering. Gradually the benefits of green infrastructure, in coordination with existing gray infrastructures, are coming to be accepted. In the face of global climate change, with drought in some regions and torrential rains in others, environmental engineers must be constantly alert to the necessity of designing water supply and wastewater systems that are integrated into the environment and adaptable in the face of changing conditions.

Discussion of the Literature

The subject of urban infrastructure, the urban environment, and more specifically water supply, sewers, and sewage treatment has received increasing attention in the literature in recent decades. This is especially so since the development of the environmental history of cities as a major subsection of environmental history. However, although earlier engineering texts often contained extensive discussions of the history of both water supply and sewers, historians largely neglected it as a specialized topic until Nelson Blake’s Water for the Cities: A History of the Urban Water Supply Problem in the United States.43 Further publication by historians on the topic, however, did not appear until the 1980s.

Several compilations of articles and chapters on urban infrastructure from the 1980s are still useful.44 All include essays on water and wastewater issues.

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed an increase in publications regarding water supply decisions and conflict.45 The water supply of the cities of Allegheny City, Atlanta, Fresno, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Shreveport, and Wilmington are dealt with in specialized articles in the historical literature.

More recently, Carl Smith’s City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago46 provides a comparative discussion of water supply decision making in these cities in the 19th century with a particular cultural focus. Michael Rawson’s Eden on the Charles discusses Boston’s early water supply issues in depth.47 Gerald T. Koeppel’s Water for Gotham: A History addresses the 19th-century conflict over the provision of water to New York City while David Soll’s Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply provides a comprehensive study of New York water supply decisions in the 20th century.48

Finally, water supply issues in a multitude of settings are dealt with in Martin V. Melosi’s compilation, Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America’s Cities and his prizewinning study, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present.49

Students interested in wastewater systems should begin with the publications of Melosi and Joel Tarr. Sanitary City extensively examines the evolution of these systems. Melosi’s work on both water and wastewater systems must be the starting point for any investigation of these topics. Many comprehensive articles are included in Tarr’s volume The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective and Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region.50 Early methods of dealing with household plumbing issues are insightfully analyzed in Maureen Ogle’s All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840–1890.51 In addition, on wastewater systems see Joanne Abel Goldman’s Building New York’s Sewers: Developing Mechanism of Urban Management and Louis P. Cain’s Sanitation Strategy for a Lakefront Metropolis: The Case of Chicago.52 Studies of sewage treatment technology are even fewer, but see Daniel Schneider’s Hybrid Nature Sewage Treatment and the Contradictions of the Industrial Ecosystem, which brings the history of science to bear on this question.53

Green infrastructure is a recent topic for historical investigation, but see Andrew Karvonen’s Politics of Urban Runoff: Nature, Technology and the Sustainable City and Rutherford H. Platt’s Reclaiming American Cities: The Struggle for People, Place, and Nature since 1900.54 Discussion of water supply and wastewater issues must include a public health perspective because this issue is so woven into the history of the subject. A useful starting point is John Duffy’s History of Public Health in New York City, 1860–1966 and The Sanitarians: A History of American Public Health.55 See also Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz’s Public Health and the State: Changing Views in Massachusetts, 1842–1936.56

Primary Sources

The amount of information available on issues of water supply and sewage systems is immense because every city, large and small, provides water and sewage services. Many of these systems originated in the 18th century. Record keeping, however, may be very sporadic, and archives are often inadequate to understand fully how decisions were made. For instance, engineers trying to cope with the repair and maintenance of systems in older cities today are constantly frustrated by a lack of adequate maps of the sewers. A good starting point for information regarding the major issues, aside from engineering texts on water and sewage and secondary historical works, is the technical literature of the times such as Engineering News and Engineering News Record. These journals and proceedings are increasingly available online, although not all materials have been scanned. Local histories and newspapers are also a valuable source because water and sewer issues often dominated discussions of city affairs while memoirs and biographical accounts of principal actors often contain insightful material. In addition, various governmental reports, on both the state and later the federal level, contain much valuable information.

Archival materials of principal figures in water and sewers affairs are available in some cases, especially if the actors were involved in discussions on the national level. For instance, there are important collections of water- and sewer-related materials in the archives of M.I.T., Harvard, Yale, and Johns Hopkins University relating especially to public health issues. In addition, the U.S. National Archives contains valuable records concerning water and sewer issues in the collections relating to the Public Health Service. Records on the state level can also be valuable as they relate to public health issues but also for spending on water and sewers.


(1.) Carl Smith, City Water, City Life: Water and Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 4–7.

(2.) Nelson M. Blake, Water for the Cities (Syracuse: University of Syracuse Press, 1956).

(3.) Joel A. Tarr, “The Evolution of the Urban Infrastructure in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in Perspectives on Urban Infrasructure, ed. Royce Hanson (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1984), 13.

(4.) Gerard T. Koeppel, Water for Gotham: A History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 201–284; and Michael Rawson, Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 75–128.

(5.) Martin V. Melosi, Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America’s Cities (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), 45–46, 51.

(6.) Robin Einhorn, Property Rules: Political Economy in Chicago, 1833–72 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 104.

(7.) Norris Hundley Jr., The Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, rev. ed.); David Soll, An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), 1–148; and Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000), 117–148.

(8.) Joel A. Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective (Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 1996), 112–117; and Maureen Ogle, All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840–1890 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 61–84.

(9.) Joel A. Tarr and Terry F. Yosie, “Critical Decisions in Pittsburgh Water and Wastewater Treatment,” in Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region, ed. Joel A. Tarr (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003), 67–70.

(10.) Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink, 293–308.

(11.) Melosi, Precious Commodity, 55.

(12.) Joanne Abel Goldman, Building New York’s Sewers: Developing Mechanisms of Urban Management (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1997), 76–98.

(13.) John Duffy, The Sanitarians: A History of American Public Health (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).

(14.) Christopher Hamlin, Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

(15.) Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink, 159–178.

(16.) Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink, 131–152

(17.) Melosi, The Sanitary City, 158–174.

(18.) Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink, 159–170.

(19.) Joel A. Tarr, “The City as an Artifact of Technology and the Environment,” in The Illusory Boundary: Environment and Technology in History, eds. Martin Reuss and Stephen H. Cutcliffe (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010), 153–154.

(20.) Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink, 120–128.

(21.) Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink, 164–176.

(22.) Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink, 192–195.

(23.) Melosi, The Sanitary City, 128–130.

(24.) Arn Keeling, “Urban Wastes as a Natural Resource: The Case of the Frazer River,” Urban History Review 34 (2005): 58–70.

(25.) Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink, 159–178.

(26.) Melosi, The Sanitary City, 134–148.

(27.) Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink, 170–176.

(28.) John T. Cumbler, Reasonable Use: The People, the Environment, and the State, New England, 1790–1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 49–62, 131–160.

(29.) Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink, 126–128.

(30.) Timothy M. Collins, Edward K. Muller, and Joel A. Tarr, “Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers: From Industrial Infrastructure to Environmental Asset,” in Rivers in History: Perspectives on Waterways in Europe and North America, eds. Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), 53.

(31.) Patrick L. Gurian and Joel A. Tarr, “The Origin of Federal Drinking Water Quality Standards,” Engineering History and Heritage: Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers (February 2011) 164: 17–26.

(32.) Daniel Schneider, Hybrid Nature: Sewage Treatment and the Contradictions of the Industrial Ecosystem (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).

(33.) Joel A. Tarr, “Industrial Waste Disposal in the United States as a Historical Problem,” Ambix: The Journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, 49 (March 2002): 4–20; and Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink, 354–384.

(34.) Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink, 376–778.

(35.) Mark A. Gelfand, A Nation of Cities: The Federal Government and Urban America, 1933–1965 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 23–105; and Melosi, Sanitary City, 205–338.

(36.) Adam Rome, Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Spread and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 15–152.

(37.) Samuel P. Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955–1985 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 351–356.

(38.) Richard N. L. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 227–254.

(39.) Rome, Bulldozer in the Countryside, 15–152.

(40.) "Clean Water Act” Wikipedia.

(42.) Andrew Karvonen, Politics of Urban Runoff: Nature, Technology and the Sustainable City (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011); and Melosi, The Sanitary City, 32.

(43.) Nelson Blake, Water for the Cities: A History of the Urban Water Supply Problem in the United States (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1956).

(44.) These include Ellis Armstrong, Michael Robinson, and Suellen Hoy, eds., History of Public Works in the United States, 1776–1976 (Chicago: APWA, 1976); Martin V. Melosi, ed., Pollution and Reform in American Cities, 1870–1930 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980); and Joel A. Tarr and Gabriel Dupuy, eds., Technology and the Rise of the Networked City in Europe and America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988).

(45.) See, for instance, Abraham Hoffman, Vision or Villainy: Origins of the Owens Valley–Los Angeles Water Controversy (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1981); William L. Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles’ Water Supply in the Owens Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); and Norris Hundley, The Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). Fern L. Nesson, Great Waters: A History of Boston’s Water Supply (Hanover NH: University Press of New England, 1983) provides an introduction to that city’s water supply issues, while Sarah S. Elkind, Bay Cities and Water Politics: The Battle for Resources in Boston and Oakland (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998) provides a comparative framework. Kate Foss-Mollan, Hard Water Politics and Water Supply in Milwaukee, 1870–1995 (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2001) is useful.

(46.) Carl Smith, City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

(47.) Michael Rawson, Eden on the Charles (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

(48.) Gerald T. Koeppel, Water for Gotham: A History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); and David Soll, Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).

(49.) Martin V. Melosi, Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America’s Cities (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011) and The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000; revised University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008).

(50.) Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink and Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003).

(51.) Maureen Ogle, All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840–1890 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

(52.) Joanne Abel Goldman, Building New York’s Sewers: Developing Mechanism of Urban Management (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1997); and Louis P. Cain, Sanitation Strategy for a Lakefront Metropolis: The Case of Chicago (Chicago: Northern Illinois Press, 1978).

(53.) Daniel Schneider, Hybrid Nature Sewage Treatment and the Contradictions of the Industrial Ecosystem (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011).

(54.) Andrew Karvonen, Politics of Urban Runoff: Nature, Technology and the Sustainable City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011); and Rutherford H. Platt, Reclaiming American Cities: The Struggle for People, Place, and Nature since 1900 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

(55.) John Duffy, History of Public Health in New York City, 1860–1966 (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1974) and The Sanitarians: A History of American Public Health (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).

(56.) Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz, Public Health and the State: Changing Views in Massachusetts, 1842–1936 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972).