Monthly Archives: April 2017

April 30, 1991: Drought Cartoon; 1847: Birth of William Ripley Nichols

April 30, 1991: Drought Cartoon. The Los Angeles Times has published cartoons over more than 100 years that depict the many droughts that California has suffered and the reactions to them. Here is one that I think you will enjoy.

Update:  We now (2017) have a 50 mgd seawater desalination plant in Carlsbad, CA. Naturally, it opened a few months before it started raining like hell in California. But that’s ok. We need to diversify our water sources and not rely solely on what falls out of the sky (or is under the earth).

April 30, 1847: William Ripley Nichols is born. “William Ripley Nichols (April 30, 1847 – July 14, 1886) was a noted American chemist [only 39 years old at his death]. Nichols was born in Boston, Massachusetts, graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1869, and served there as instructor and assistant professor until 1872, when he was elected professor of general chemistry, which chair he retained until his death in Hamburg, Germany. Professor Nichols was recognized as an authority on sanitation, and particularly on water purification, published numerous papers on municipal water supplies, and was active in the pioneering work of the Lawrence Experiment Station. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he was Vice President in 1885, and of the German Chemical Society.”

Nichols was also a mentor to Ellen Swallow Richards at MIT. “In 1887, the laboratory, directed by Thomas Messinger Drown, conducted a study under Richards of water quality in Massachusetts for the Massachusetts State Board of Health involving over 20,000 samples, the first such study in America. Her data was used to find causes of pollution and improper sewage disposal. As a result, Massachusetts established the first water-quality standards in America and its first modern sewage treatment plant at Lowell, Massachusetts.”

Commentary: This post completes four years and eight months of daily blogging on This Day in Water History. I started the process to spread the word about water history to those who might be interested, and instead, I ended up teaching myself more than I could have imagined about the field of sanitary engineering and water history in general. Many thanks to all of you who have joined with me on this ride into the past.

April 29, 1915: Sewer Gas Explosion

April 29, 1915: Municipal Journal article. Fatal Explosion in Sewage Disposal Plant. “Ocean Grove, N. J.-An explosion in the valve chamber of the larger of Ocean Grove’s two septic tank plants on the afternoon of April 25 injured three men, one of whom died the next day of his injuries. In this plant are four tanks, each 13 by 93 1/2 feet, built side by side. Across one end is a detritus chamber, 57 feet long by 5~ feet wide, and above this is a valve operating chamber, 57 feet long, 8 feet wide and 6 feet high. The whole structure is built of reinforced concrete.

On the day named the designing engineer of the Ocean Grove plant, Clyde Potts, of New York, was showing it to a party of officials from South Bound Brook, accompanied by Walter C. Bowen, sanitary engineer of New Brunswick. Councilmen Raymond Stryker and Karlson La Rue descended the ladder into the valve chamber, followed by Mr. Bowen. Mr. Stryker, on reaching the bottom, struck a match to light a cigar, when a flame burst out of the manhole which blew Bowen to the surface with his face seared and clothing on fire. Stryker, on the floor, was knocked down and, as the flames burned above him, escaped with less injury. La Rue was blown to the manhole opening, and as he clung there, resting on his chest, during the 15 seconds through which the flame roared out of the opening, he was burned on every part of his body except his chest. La Rue and Bowen were hurried to the hospital, where the former died on Monday night. Mr. Bowen will probably be able to leave the hospital in a week or two.

What gas caused the explosion and how it reached the plant are not known. Mr. Potts had previously thought he detected the odor of illuminating gas [methane] at the plant. He expects to endeavor in a few days to ascertain the origin of the gas with a view to preventing a repetition of the occurrence.”

Reference: “Fatal Explosion in Sewage Disposal Plant.” 1915. Municipal Journal article 38:17(April 29, 1-915): 597.

Commentary: Seriously? Mr. Stryker struck a match? Despite the strange juxtaposition of name and action, this is a sad tale of death caused by entry into a confined space. It would be many decades before this unnecessary loss of life was eliminated by strict rules that require evacuation of potentially toxic or explosive gases from sewers and other confined spaces. If you ever wondered why OSHA regulations were enacted, this is a good example. By the way, the source of the explosive gas is no mystery. Any anaerobic degradation of organic wastes would have produced plenty of methane that would have ignited explosively when Mr. Stryker lit his cigar.

April 28, 1909: Electrolytic Treatment of Sewage in Santa Monica

Santa Monica Pier, 1909

April 28, 1909: Municipal Journal and Engineer article. Electrolytic Treatment of Sewage. By C.B. Irvine. “After a practical operation of the magneto-electrolytic sewage purification plant at Santa Monica, Cal., covering a period of nine months, figures are obtainable going to show the actual cost of maintaining the plant. For sixty days prior to September 1 of last year the device was operated by its builders, at the expense of the city. This was the trial test upon which the decision to purchase the system was based, and as it proved satisfactory to the City Council, the purchase was made at $10,000. On September 1 the city took charge of the plant and has since been treating twenty-five miners’ inches of sewage daily. The capacity of the plant is great enough to care for a million gallons in a twenty-four-hour day, but the quantity supplied by the 11,000 inhabitants of the city does not exceed one-half that amount. The cost of operating the plant is found, upon actual experience, to be approximately $400 per month…. The City Council has expressed itself as being entirely satisfied with the operation of the plant, which is being visited every few days by delegations from Southern California cities, while inquiries are received from all parts of the globe.”

Reference: Irvine, C.B. 1909. “Electrolytic Treatment of Sewage.” Municipal Journal and Engineer article 26:17(April 28, 1909): 718.

Commentary: At the turn of the 20th century, cities across the U.S. were being conned by unscrupulous charlatans who claimed that running a little electricity into sewage would fix it up just fine. It is a little embarrassing that this example is from my home town of Santa Monica, California. With only 11,000 residents, Santa Monica was a little beach town during this period with a big pier.

April 27, 1916: Typhoid Outbreak After Fire at Filtration Plant

April 27, 1916: Municipal Journal article. Typhoid Follows Burning of Filtration Plant. “South Fork, Pa.-South Fork has a typhoid fever epidemic. There are ten people ill with the disease now and a number of suspects are under observation. South Fork authorities say the sickness is the result of people not heeding the warning of the board of health to boil the water during the period in which the water was not treated because of fire destroying the filtration plant. The plant was burned several weeks ago. Circulars were distributed all over the town asking the people to boil all water used for domestic purposes. Ministers and school teachers announced the warning and the newspapers published it. Analysis of the water while the filtration plant was not working indicated possibilities of typhoid. The plant is again in operation and tests show the water free from pollution.”

Reference: “Typhoid Follows Burning of Filtration Plant.” 1916. Municipal Journal article 40:17(April 27, 1916): 590.

Commentary: Typhoid fever was still endemic in the U.S. in 1916. Any breakdown in the water treatment barriers caused spikes in disease such as the one described in this article. This also shows the problem with public notification. I guess that they did not have Twitter and Facebook back then.

April 26, 1911: Water Waste

April 26, 1911: Municipal Journal and Engineer editorial. Waste in Public Water Consumption. “We have had occasion several times to call attention to the fact that no class of consumers waste more water than schools and other municipal buildings and that consequently meters or other methods of restricting waste are fully as important here as on any other services in the city, in spite of the seeming anomaly of a city’s measuring the water which it delivers to itself.

An illustration of this is furnished by the city of New Bedford, Mass. During the year 1910 there was metered and charged to the schools, engine houses, police stations, city hall, library, almshouse, city stables, cemeteries, parks, wharfs and electric car sprinklers 88,809,000 gallons. In addition, metered water was supplied for drinking fountains, extinguishing fires, flushing sewers, puddling trenches, street operations and water department work which is estimated by the superintendent to have amounted to 200,000,000 gallons. This total of 288,000,000 gallons is about one-tenth of the total consumption of the city.

How much water was being wasted previous to the use of meters is not known; but all departments now watch their meter records and if an abnormal amount is registered they quickly locate and remove the cause, while hitherto they have concerned themselves very little with leaky fixtures. The school department, previous to the installment of meters, had several very large motors operating ventilating machines. One of these was metered and found to use over 27,000,000 gallons a year, and it is fair to presume an equal amount was being used by each of the others. When meters were installed at the end of 1909, these motors were all discontinued and electricity was substituted as a motive power.”

Reference: “Waste in Public Water Consumption.” 1911. Municipal Journal and Engineer editorial 30:17(April 26, 1911): 579.

Commentary: Fixing leaks and eliminating unaccounted for water is still a big challenge for water utilities today. Utilities realized in the early 20th century that fixing water waste was like finding a new water supply.

April 25, 2014: Switch to Flint River Water Supply; 1926: New York Harbor a Menace

April 25, 2014: Switch to Flint River Water Supply, Flint, MI. An article published online memorialized the change earlier that day from treated water from Detroit, Michigan, to the raw water supply of the Flint River and the activation of the Flint Water Plant. The photo from that article reproduced above shows local and state officials toasting each other with water from the Flint plant. I am certain that most of them would be happy to have their images removed from that and similar photographs.

About a month after the change, residents of Flint began to complain about discolored water and odors from the new water supply. The water coming out of city taps was orange, red, yellow and brown. City and State officials tried to assure Flint citizens that the water was safe to drink even after repeated failures of primary drinking water regulations: Total Coliform Rule and the trihalomethane regulation. But the worst was yet to come.

Once the water from the Flint River was demonstrated to be more corrosive to iron and steel than water from Detroit, someone in the water department, treatment plant staff, City administration or Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ, drinking water regulatory agency) should have asked the question, “What about corrosion of the 15,000 lead service lines serving water to homes in the City?”

Some stories about what happened in Flint state that the USEPA asked MDEQ if optimized treatment was being applied to prevent corrosion of lead service lines (LSLs). The MDEQ representative assured the USEPA that everything was just fine.

What we now know is that the treated Flint River water was highly corrosive to lead and levels greater than 10,000 ug/L have been found in some home samples. Hundreds of samples have been found to contain lead above the 15 ug/L State and federal action level. Young children who are most susceptible to the toxic effects of lead were exposed at high concentrations, which ultimately showed up as elevated blood lead levels in thousands of children.

It took the persistence of one mother in town, a smart, courageous doctor and an activist engineering professor to blow the whistle and get everyone to start paying attention to a public health emergency. Citizens of Flint owe a great deal to LeeAnne Walters, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Marc Edwards. Miguel Del Toral of the USEPA did everything that he could to ring alarm bells once he understood what was happening. Later reporting by Rachel Maddow of MSNBC brought the crisis to national attention and helped start a national discussion of the solutions needed.

Extremely high lead levels are being reported in some Flint homes many months after the shift back to Detroit water with phosphate treatment. Why is that happening? The interior surfaces of lead pipe in the Flint service area have been badly disrupted and phosphate treatment is not fixing the problem. Flint citizens should also be highly suspicious of lead results from first flush samples, which are mandated by the Lead and Copper Rule. Research has now shown that spikes of extremely high lead concentrations do not occur until more water is flushed through the system and the water that has been stagnating in lead pipes overnight is sampled and analyzed.

Here are a few questions with my best efforts to answer them.

Where did the LSLs in Flint come from and why were they installed? I found an 1897 City of Flint Ordinance that required the use of lead pipe to connect water mains to homes. I have found dozens and there must be hundreds of ordinances for other cities like this in the literature. Lead was the preferred material because other materials such as iron and steel pipes corroded away. Ironically, lead was considered a more durable material for service lines. Copper and plastic pipes were not commercially available until much later.

Why do local officials claim that water is safe to drink when it looks like orange Kool-Aid, smells like rotten eggs and tastes like sucking on a rusty nail? I have seen statements like this from city and water utility officials across the U.S. They should know by now that stating something that is clearly false to the people experiencing the delivery of bad water destroys the utility’s credibility and makes everyone angry. The only possible response is: “The water is disgusting, and even though it meets all health standards, it does not meet our standards. We are sorry. We are going to find out why this is happening and we are going to fix it.”

How in the world could this have happened? Who is responsible? Governor Rick Snyder likes to say that it happened because of a failure of government at all levels. For once, I agree with him. However, it appears to me that he says this as a way to dilute the responsibility of his administration, his state-appointed emergency manager and the state regulatory agency, the MDEQ. If the state agencies had been focused on protecting public health and not saving a few dollars, the lead poisoning disaster in Flint would never have happened. But City officials, water department personnel and the consultant who made recommendations for treatment plant upgrades also deserve some of the blame. If one person or a group of these people had stood up and raised holy hell and demanded corrosion testing of the new water supply, the crisis would have been avoided. There are lessons to learn from this disaster for everyone who is involved in serving drinking water in this country.

What about LSLs? Should they be replaced? Yes. NOW. A big mistake was made in 1991 with the adoption of the Lead and Copper Rule that did not require the replacement of all LSLs in the U.S. Also, the allowance of partial replacement of LSLs made lead exposure of the public far worse. Everyone involved in drinking water and public health should demand that the federal Lead and Copper Rule Long-Term Revisions include an accelerated schedule for replacing LSLs. Also, we should not get confused about who foots the bill. Society made the decision in the 19th and 20th centuries to use lead pipe. The homeowners and utility personnel who installed lead pipes are long dead. The total cost for LSL replacement should be paid for by utilities (with cost recovery from increased water rates) with some help from state and federal governments to seed the process and get it done. Society caused the problem and it is up to all of us to fix it. There are 6.1 million LSLs in this country and they need to be ripped out and completely replaced without delay.


Adams, D. 2014. Closing the Valve on History: Flint Cuts Water Flow From Detroit after nearly 50 years. Michigan Live. ( Accessed April 24, 2016).

Cornwell, D.A., R.A. Brown and S.H. Via. 2016. National Survey of LSL Occurrence. Jour. AWWA. April.

McGuire, M.J. 2016. Flint, Michigan: Lessons to Live By. Keynote address presented at the California Nevada Section Spring Conference, Sacramento, California. March 22.

Ordinances of the City of Flint, Michegan. Rules of the Common Council. 1897. page 142-3. ( Accessed March 21, 2016).

Update: In 2017, Flint was allocated about $100 million of public money to replace their lead service lines. Society has solved one city’s problem but there are many more cities that need a total replacement of their LSLs.

April 25, 1926: New York Times headline—Harbor Sewage Called a Menace to Health. “State Legislature Urged to Take Action to Halt Pollution of New York Waters — Many Cities Pour Their Raw Waste Into the Bay. A report just submitted to the Legislature of New York urges drastic action to protect the City of New York against the menace to health arising from the pollution of the harbor and near-by bathing beaches, not only by New York but by other cities and States. Dr. George W. Soper who was Director of the Metropolitan Sewerage Commission stated that every day, 940 million gallons of sewage per day were poured into the harbor every day. He called the situation a ‘direct offense upon the sense of decency…a constant menace to health.’”

April 24, 1913: Cairo IL, Wrecked Standpipe

April 24, 1913: Engineering News article. The Recent Standpipe Failure at Cairo, Ill. By G.C. Habermeyer. “The standpipe of the Cairo Water Co. fell at about 2: 15 a.m., Feb. 11, 1913, as noted in Engineering News of Feb. 20, 1913. The standpipe was close to the pumping station and filter house, as shown in Figs. 1 and 2. It was built in 1885 by W. B. Maitland & Son, contractors, at that time of Peoria, Ill….

To sum up: The bottom angle of the standpipe was of very poor steel and at the time of the failure, due to fracture and corrosion, probably had almost no strength. The large opening left for the inlet pipe was a source of weakness, especially when the stones along the edge of this opening settled. The foundation was in poor condition. The settling of the foundation gave the standpipe a slightly leaning position and the uneven surface caused by the unequal settlement produced higher stresses in some anchor rods and side plates than would be indicated by the amount of leaning. The west side of the foundation was probably highest and at this point the original rupture probably occurred. Some plates, especially those about 50 ft. from the top, were seriously weakened by corrosion. Some rivet heads were eaten almost away. It is concluded that unequal bearing, slight leaning and the weakness of the bottom angle caused a rupture at the base.

The standpipe had deteriorated seriously before the failure. A careful inspection would have revealed its critical condition. It would be of great advantage to water companies if standpipes and elevated tanks were inspected by competent persons at regular intervals.

Reference: Habermeyer, G.C. 1913. “The Recent Standpipe Failure at Cairo, Ill.” Engineering News. 69:17(April 24, 1913): 825, 829.

Commentary: It appears that just about everything that could go wrong with this standpipe did go wrong. In the early part of the 20th century, water companies were still learning a great deal (the hard way) about how to design, construct and maintain their infrastructure.