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.”


October 8, 1823: Inauguration of the Erie Canal; 1986: Dinoseb Pesticide Banned

October 8, 1823Today in Science: “The Erie Canal was inaugurated at Albany, NY, upon the occasion of the first passage of a boat into the canal, although the entire canal was not completed. Cannon were placed on the hill near the mansion of General Ten Broeck and fifty-four rounds were fired in honor of each county in the state. The steamboats and other crafts in the river were trimmed with bunting and decorated gaily. The first boat entered the lock with state and local officials, followed by other boats, one of which was filled with ladies. The masonic fraternity ceremoniously laid the cap stone of the lock. A bottle of seawater, brought by the New York committee, was emptied, and mingled with the waters of the lakes and the river. About 40,000 people were present.”

October 8, 1986New York Times headline–Emergency Order Bans Much-Used Pesticide. “Asserting that the widely used pesticide dinoseb posed a ”very serious risk” of birth defects, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency order today barring sale or use of the chemical.

It is only the third time in the agency’s 15-year history that it has pulled a pesticide off the market on an emergency basis. The other two pesticides involved were 2,4,5-T in 1977 and ethylene dibromide in 1984. An emergency suspension is the strongest action the agency can take under the Federal pesticide law. . . .The agency has found significant residues of dinoseb in underground drinking water supplies in only two areas of the country: the potato growing areas of Suffolk County, L.I., and in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts.”

October 7, 2014: Death of Ed Geldreich; 2003: China Reservoir Poisoning

October 7, 2014:  Edwin Emery Geldreich, Jr., passed away on Tuesday October 7, 2014, after a brief illness. He was 92 years old. Born May 9, 1922, he was the only child of his late parents Edwin E. Geldreich, Sr. and Myrtle E. Geldreich (Tuthill) of Cincinnati. A graduate of Hughes High School (Class of 1940), he went on to receive Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the biological sciences from the University of Cincinnati. He served in the US Army in Europe from March 1944 to March 1946 during the Second World War. After the war, he joined what was then the Department of the Interior, working in a microbiology laboratory on issues related to drinking water. This research division was moved into the new Environmental Protection Agency when it was formed in 1970. There he became a world-class expert in the quality of drinking water, and travelled the world under the auspices of the World Health Organization to help developing nations improve the quality of their drinking water. For this work he received numerous awards, and authored several scientific books on the subject as well as many technical journal articles. He married Loretta M. Eibel of Covington, Kentucky, in 1950, and they remained married until her death on November 9, 2006 at the age of 85. He had many interests and hobbies, including being a licensed ham radio operator who built his own radios. He was also a skilled gardener, loved to play the organ, and enjoyed photography and travel.

Henan Province, China

October 7, 2003:  New York Times headline–China: Arrest in Reservoir Poisoning. “The police arrested a 27-year-old man in central Henan Province in the poisoning of a reservoir that provides drinking water to homes because he wanted to increase sales for his water purifiers, the official New China News Agency reported. No deaths were reported, but 64 people became sick, with 42 needing to be hospitalized.”

October 6, 1906: Houston Buys Water Works

Ground Subsidence in Houston Area

October 6, 1906The City of Houston bought the private Water Works Company for $901,700—the amount of debt owed by the company. With the sale, the City acquired the Water Works plant, 55 wells and 65 miles of mains. The newly organized Water Department rapidly drilled sixty-six new artesian wells to augment the recently acquired infrastructure.

Commentary:  Go to This Day in Water History for September 25, 1982to see the consequences of the rapid withdrawal of groundwater under Houston–subsidence!

October 5, 2004: Judge stops Bronx water project

October 5, 2004New York Times headline–Judge Stops Bronx Water Project. “A State Supreme Court justice, William A. Wetzel, has temporarily stopped the city from beginning to build a $1.3 billion water filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Last week, the City Council cleared the project, despite neighborhood protests that the plant would ruin parkland and disrupt a quiet neighborhood for years; on Friday, the judge issued the restraining order which had been sought by a civic group, Friends of Van Cortlandt Park. The group said that the city had failed to comply with zoning laws.” Commentary:No one said that building a new water treatment plant would be easy. Of course, this delay was not significant and construction of the Croton Water Treatment Plant proceeded.

Here is an update on the plant:

Croton Water Filtration Plant Activated

May 8, 2015

Largest Underground Filtration Plant in the United States has the Capacity to Filter up to 290 Million Gallons of Drinking Water Each Day;  Will Protect the City against the Possibility of Drought and the Effects of Climate Change

Photos of the Project and Maps are available on DEP’s Flickr Page

New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Emily Lloyd today announced that the $3.2 billion Croton Filtration Plant was recently activated and water from the Croton water supply system has been reintroduced into the city’s distribution network for the first time since 2008.  Built beneath Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, preparatory site work and excavation for the 400,000 square foot facility began in 2004.  Construction commenced in 2007 and, at the height of the work, roughly 1,300 laborers were on-site.  In addition to building the plant, the 33-mile long New Croton Aqueduct was rehabilitated and three new water tunnels were constructed to bring water to the plant, and then from the plant back to the distribution system.  With the capacity to filter up to 290 million gallons of water a day, the state of the art facility can provide roughly 30 percent of the city’s current daily water needs.”

October 4, 1921: Death of Hiram Mills who Birthed the First Sanitary Engineering Laboratory in the World

October 4, 1921Death of Hiram Francis Mills.“Born in Bangor, Maine, in the year 1836 and receiving his early schooling there, the young Hiram Mills moved on to the newly-established Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute to be graduated before he was twenty. When he was in his middle thirties he was appointed Chief Engineer of the Essex Company, the corporate owner of the Merrimack River dam and water power rights at Lawrence, Massachusetts. Ever research-minded, Mr. Mills induced the Essex Company to set up an outdoor hydraulic laboratory on the river bank below the power dam.

In the year 1886 came a momentous change in the direction of Mr. Mills’ scientific interests. In that year he was appointed a member of the recently reorganized State Board of Health. At the first meeting he was chosen by his associates to be chairman of the Board’s Committee on Water Supplies and Sewage; and from hydraulics, Hiram Mills’ chief scientific concern in life turned to sanitation.

The law of 1886, re-creating the State Board of Health, empowered the members to investigate methods for the disposal of sewage, and Hiram Mills lost little time in seeing that the law’s intent was carried out. As the place for his projected studies in the best practical methods for safe sewage disposal, he persuaded the Essex Company to lend to Massachusetts the experimental plant the company had created for his hydraulic researches. With State funds a modest laboratory building was added to the existing structures, and the whole was renamed the Lawrence Experiment Station — the first research enterprise of its kind in our country.

Lawrence Experiment Station, 1903

It may fairly be said that the investigations which Mills was to plan and carry through to conclusion in this physically limited and always economically equipped plant laid the foundations for many of the scientific methods of treatment of drinking water and municipal wastes. Instead of investing in elaborate equipment and costly facilities. Mills invested in brains, as frequently he was pleased to point out, To man his researches, Mr. Mills drew upon the faculty and recent graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and thus employing their varied scientific skills, he perfected a unique investigating team whose inventiveness and productiveness are not likely to be seen again.” [editied by M.J. McGuire]

Commentary:  Members of the research team included George W. Fuller, Allen Hazenand William T. Sedgwick. MIT professors William Ripley NicholsEllen Swallow Richards, and Thomas M. Drown also played important early roles. Allen Hazen and George W. Fuller were in charge of some of the earliest research on sewage treatment and drinking water filtration. I think the author of the above piece is too modest. The Lawrence Experiment Station was the first sanitary engineering research laboratory in the world.

October 3, 2008: Perchlorate Will Not Be Regulated

October 3, 2008: EPA made a preliminary determinationnot to regulate perchlorate in drinking water. “Perchlorate is the explosive component of solid rocket fuel, fireworks, road flares, and other products. Used heavily by the Department of Defense and related industries, perchlorate also occurs naturally and is present in some organic fertilizer.

This soluble, persistent compound has been detected in drinking water supplies, especially in California. . . .Because of this widespread occurrence, concern over the potential health risks of perchlorate exposure has increased, and some states, water utilities, and Members of Congress have urged the Environmental Protection Agency to set a federal drinking water standard for this chemical.”

Commentary:  On June 26, 2019, the USEPA proposed an MCL of 56 ppb for perchlorate. The California MCL is 6 ppb. Alternatives are 18 and 90 ppb. It will be quite easy for utilities to meet the federal rule. So, what was all the hubbub about?