May 15, 1913: Cleveland Filtration Editorial

Cleveland Waterworks in 1903 before the installation of filtration

Cleveland Waterworks in 1903 before the installation of filtration

May 15, 1913: Engineering News editorial. The Water Filtration Question at Cleveland. “The remarkably low typhoid death rate of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1912 (about 6 per 100,000) seems on its face to be wholly incompatible with the contention of the local board of health and certain members of the city council that the water-supply is so badly polluted as to make the immediate construction of a water-filtration plant imperative.

Some time ago a committee of the Engineers’ Club of Cleveland investigated filtration and made an adverse report which headed off a proposed bond-issue ordinance then before the city council. Early in 1912, D. D. Jackson, of New York City, made an exhaustive report on the Cleveland water-supply, with the conclusion that filtration would be chiefly of esthetic value, for the present, and that the wiser plan would be to carry out improvements which would continue still further the separation of the sewage discharges from the water intake. These improvements are now in progress or early prospect, and will result in lessening the volume and frequency of possible infection, both of which are held by Mr. Jackson and other competent persons to be relatively small. Meanwhile, it should be noted, the water-supply of Cleveland is being disinfected with hypochlorite.

Within the past few weeks the city council of Cleveland, or certain members of it, have tried to force the mayor, Newton D. Baker, into acquiescence with their advocacy of filtration. There has been much talk of an appeal to the State Board of Health for an investigation of the subject. In fact, the council did pass a resolution to that effect, but it appears that the resolution was not in such terms as would give the board authority to order filtration, since the resolution did not declare the water supply to be a menace to health.

While we sympathize with every well considered effort to improve the quality of city water-supplies, we are not convinced by such of the arguments as have come to our attention that filtration at Cleveland is as vital to the health and as essential to the comfort and convenience of the people of that city as other objects of municipal expenditure. This, we understand, is the opinion of Mayor Baker, and we also understand that the officials in direct charge of the water-works are of the same opinion.

The question of water filtration at Cleveland or elsewhere should be settled on the basis of whether the expenditure of a given sum for this or other purposes will yield the greatest benefit to the largest number of people. The city authorities have taken competent expert advice as to the need for filtration and they have also had the public-spirited advice of leading engineer-citizens. True, the board of health is strong for filtration, but its viewpoint (we may unwittingly do it injustice) seems to be the narrow medical one of advocating a counsel of perfection, with no careful weighing of the benefits to health which will ensue and with little or no regard for cost or for the other health and general welfare needs of the city.

Presumably Cleveland, like all other cities dependent upon surface water-supplies, will yet have a filtration plant. The question for it and other cities to consider is whether, in view of financial and other local considerations, filtration or something else should take precedence at a given moment. The evidence before us points to a delay in filtration at Cleveland.

Reference: “The Water Filtration Question at Cleveland.” 1913. Engineering News. 69:20(May 15, 1913):1011.

Commentary: I reprinted the entire editorial because it is so extraordinary. Engineering News was a potent force in the municipal and engineering community in the first two decades of the 20th century. The journal’s opinion that filtration was not needed because they were disinfecting with chlorine shows how little regard many in the profession had for the protection of public health. To call the proposal to install filtration “the narrow medical one of advocating a counsel of perfection, with no careful weighing of the benefits to health” is beyond our understanding today. It would take decades before the lesson of multi-barrier protection of drinking water really took hold. The filtration plant being discussed began operation in 1917.

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