October 15, 1918: First Water Permit Issued to LADWP; 1988: Uranium Leak

1105 LA Aqueduct openingOctober 15, 1918:  Date of first water permit issued to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for the Owens Valley water supply. On this date, the California Department of Public Health issued the first water supply permit to LADWP for the Owens Valley water supply, which started operation on November 5, 1913. The permit includes a report authored by Ralph Hilscher who was the Southern Division Engineer at the time. The report catalogues all of the major features of the Owens Valley supply including the physical facilities built to transport the water 233 miles to Los Angeles. In the report is a detailed assessment of the potential sources of contamination of the water supply by human habitation. The report stressed that only 1.5 persons per square mile occupied the Owens Valley aqueduct watershed compared with 132 persons per square mile, which was stated as typical of watersheds in Massachusetts.

Ignored were the potential pathogens from animals such as deer, beavers and cows (Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium parvum). Health authorities simply were not aware at that time of the potential for these pathogen sources to contaminate a water supply and cause disease in humans (zoonotic diseases). A statement in the report makes this point clearly, “It is the consensus of opinion among sanitarians that human waterborne diseases have their origin only in human beings.”

The report recognized the purifying action of the large reservoirs in the Owens Valley system that had extensive detention times, which were instrumental in reducing pathogen concentrations.

Another fact that I was unaware of until I read the report was that the first 24 miles of the aqueduct were earthen-lined and not lined with concrete.

Missing from the report is any mention of the use of chlorine for disinfection. Other literature sources had estimated that chlorination of the LA Aqueduct supply could have taken place as early as 1915. It is clear from the Department of Public Health report that any chlorination of LA water supplies around 1915 must have referred to disinfection of the water from infiltration galleries along the Los Angeles River. One report that I have read (unconfirmed) stated that ammonia was also added at the infiltration galleries to form chloramines. I have still not located a firm date when the Owens Valley supply was chlorinated.

A letter dated December 12, 1924, from Carl Wilson who was the Laboratory Director for the LADWP to C.G. Gillespie of the Bureau of Sanitary Engineering summarized the progress that they had made in applying chlorine to their system. In that letter are two curious statements by Mr. Gillespie. First, he only planned to operate chlorinators treating water from the reservoirs during the rainy season because no local runoff would be entering the hillside reservoirs. Second, he did not see the need to determine chlorine residual using the orthotolidine method, but he would do so if required by the Department. It took a long time for sanitary practices to penetrate the operational mindset of all water utilities not just the LADWP. From a paper published in 1935, we know that the entire system was chlorinated by that time with multiple application points in the system.

Read the entire permit for a fascinating view into the thinking of a regulatory agency during the early days of our understanding of watershed protection and maintenance of a water supply that would be free from disease causing microorganisms.

Reference:  Goudey, R.F. “Chlorination of Los Angeles Water Supply.” Am J Public Health Nations Health. 1935 June; 25(6): 730–734. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1558978/ Accessed October 14, 2013.

Credit: Thanks to Susan Brownstein of LADWP for sharing a copy of the permit with me.

Uranium Contaminated Site

Uranium Contaminated Site

October 15, 1988: New York Times headline–U.S., for Decades, Let Uranium Leak at Weapon Plant. “Government officials overseeing a nuclear weapon plant in Ohio knew for decades that they were releasing thousands of tons of radioactive uranium waste into the environment, exposing thousands of workers and residents in the region, a Congressional panel said today.

The Government decided not to spend the money to clean up three major sources of contamination, Energy Department officials said at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. Runoff from the plant carried tons of the waste into drinking water wells in the area and the Great Miami River; leaky pits at the plant, storing waste water containing uranium emissions and other radioactive materials, leaked into the water supplies, and the plant emitted radioactive particles into the air…Fernald’s problems with radioactive emissions have been public knowledge and a source of anxiety and frustration for several years.

But in court documents discussed today at the hearing and reported last week by the Cincinnati papers, Government officials acknowledged for the first time that ”the Government knew full well that the normal operation of the Fernald plant would result in emissions of uranium and other substances” into water supplies and into the atmosphere.”

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