October 9, 1860: Antebellum Cheap Water

Automatic Water Meter

October 9, 1860: New York Times headline–Cheap Water. “It would not be easy to exaggerate the importance of a bountiful supply of pure water to the general health and comfort of cities and large towns. But no sooner does this first principle of civilization assume the practical shape of costly water works, suited to the prospective wants of our growing towns, than lo! the reservoirs are but half full, and the engineers are threatening us with new reservoirs, aqueducts, engines — and taxation. It is only a few years ago that New-York celebrated the introduction of the copious and inexhaustible Croton; what is the hydraulic condition of its streets and houses to-day? Fountains as dry as the desert — hydrants that were to throw their full streams to warehouse tops, scarcely able to expand a hose; penurious drippings in the second stories of dwellings, and the dry whistle of air entering a vacuum, in the upper rooms; manufacturers taxed for water to an amount almost equal to the rent of their buildings; news columns filled with appeals to good citizens to refrain from the excessive use of water; official reports acknowledging the utter inability of the Department to check the enormous drain on the reservoirs. More than ten years ago we were told that the maximum capacity of the works was exhausted — works designed for a much larger population — and that suffering would inevitably follow an interruption of the water supply. And at this time we are paying for a reservoir of enormous cost and magnitude, to be drained like the rest, by the remorseless demand for water— a demand which increases with the supply — a thirst which the Father of Waters could scarcely quench.”

Commentary: The article goes on for another 1000 words or so. The unamed author finally made his point near the end of the piece by saying that water was too cheap and that people were wasting it. He argued that no new expensive facilities needed to be built. All that was needed was to meter the water that goes into each dwelling and charge according. It would be many decades before metering in New York City would take hold. Once NYC decided to meter, they went forward with gusto. As of February 2011, NYC was more than halfway done connecting its customers to meters with digital transmitters that send real-time water use data to the City using radio transmissions. Other cities have followed a similar path and more will join the digitization of water use.

A web page for NYC DEP explains the Automated Meter Reading Program. According to the web page:  “The installation of the AMR system for all 834,000 DEP customers will take approximately three years to complete.”

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