Tag Archives: California

October 27, 1850: Cholera in Sacramento, California

Memorial to Courageous Physicians who Died in the Epidemic

October 27, 1850Cholera in Sacramento, California. “Alas for Sacramento in 1850, cholera is a disease that thrives in conditions of urban filth. The bacterium can be transmitted from one host to another through unwashed hands or raw sewage. When raw sewage containing the bacteria finds its way into the public water supply, cholera spreads rapidly. Its symptoms include severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. The disease strikes without warning. In the course of a single day, cholera can be fatal to a previously healthy person. Perkins wrote on October 27, ‘Some have been taken who were to all appearances in good health and have died in a few hours.’ Likewise, on October 23, Lord noted in his journal, ‘A man walking down J Street last evening, dropped suddenly, and lived only long enough to be carried into the nearest door.’

The first death from cholera occurred on October 20. The number of cases rapidly multiplied over the next few weeks, radiating into the city from the commercial riverside district….Public health measures proved to be worse than ineffective. A city ordinance passed on October 21 ordered residents to burn their garbage or face a $500 fine. Lord wrote that the ‘filth is burned in the middle of the streets—old shoes and boots and clothes by the ton, and cart loads of bones, and raw hides, and putrid meat, and spoiled bacon—so that the end of the matter is worse than the beginning.’ By the end of the month, half of the population of the city had either succumbed to the disease or fled the city. By the end of the first week of November, it was 80 percent. ‘In this pestilential reign of terror and dismay the most dreadful abandonments of relatives and friends took place’….”

Reference:  Isenberg, Andrew C. Mining California:  An Ecological History. New York:Hill and Wang, 2005, p.66.

Commentary The Sacramento 1850 epidemic was one of the worst in U.S. history.

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

October 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. Wilson. 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

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.”

July 22, 1914: Chlorine and a Pet Canary; 1962: Oily Birds; 1935: Mulholland Dies

July 22, 1914: Canary has sore wings. As chlorine began to be used throughout the U.S., some people were convinced that chlorine was bad for them and enlisted the help of their pets’ maladies to prove their point. “[In 1914] A Dunkirk young woman blames the poor condition of her pet canary bird on the chlorine solution in the city water supply. For some time she said the bird did poorly, was dopy as she termed it and had sore wings and refrained from singing. She did much cogitating on the matter and finally came to the conclusion that the city water with the chlorine solution might be the cause of the trouble…After a few days [of using unchlorinated local lake water] the bird grew lively and its sore wings healed.”

Reference: Evening Observer (Dunkirk, New York). “Blames City Water for Bird’s Sickness: Dunkirk Young Woman is Certain that Chlorine Caused Illness of Pet Canary.” July 22, 1914.

July 22, 1962: Oil Slick is Shroud for Birds (Washington Post). “Oil pollution at sea is a serious issue. Oil tankers at sea, “the dumping of old crankcase oil and the pumping of oily water from bilges” are major causes of the oil pollution. The most widespread cause of death among sea birds is from oil. Insulating air pockets are destroyed which is s a cause of drowning. The seriousness of this issue has been recognized. While it is illegal to dump oil within 50 miles of a coastline, ships continue to do so.”

William Mulholland

July 22, 1935: Death of William Mulholland. “William Mulholland (September 11, 1855 – July 22, 1935) was the head of a predecessor department to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He was responsible for building the city water infrastructure and providing a water supply that allowed the city to grow into one of the largest in the world. Mulholland supervised the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 233-mile (375 km)-long system to move water from Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley. The creation and operation of the aqueduct led to the disputes known as the California Water Wars. In March 1928, his career ended when the St. Francis Dam failed 12 hours after he and his assistant gave it a safety inspection.”

June 27, 1912: Los Angeles Water Supply Plan

June 27, 1912: Municipal Journal article. Los Angeles New Water Supply. “The plan and construction of the Los Angeles aqueduct have invited the interest and admiration of the engineer and layman generally throughout the United States both from the great distance-240 miles-that the water is to be carried into the city and the unusual obstacles that have presented themselves. The spectacular and novel methods of building the conduit across the Mojave desert, tunneling mountain ranges and bridging chasms naturally have received the most attention from technical and popular writers. The quality and the quantity of the water have been generally overlooked. For instance, it is not commonly known that Los Angles, after going so far for her water supply, will not depend entirely upon the flow of the Owens River and its tributaries, but will have in addition a very dependable supplementary supply from a large artesian area in the Owens Valley, where a number of wells have been bored. It is the purpose of this article to discuss briefly these two features. The final acquisition of approximately 25,000 acres of artesian lands from the United States Government now makes it possible to discuss this feature of the project.

The principal diversion, of course, is the Owens River at a point in the Owens Valley 11 miles north of the town of Independence, Inyo County, California, and at an elevation of 3,812 feet.”

Commentary: Of course. The Owens River. What could possibly go wrong?

March 12, 1928: St. Francis Dam Disaster

Portion of the St. Francis Dam after the catastrophic failure

March 12, 1928: St. Francis Dam gives way in Los Angeles, killing over 500 people. “The St. Francis Dam was a curved concrete gravity dam, built to create a large regulating and storage reservoir as part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. It was located in San Francisquito Canyon, about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, California, approximately 10 miles north of the city of Santa Clarita….

The dam was designed and built between 1924 and 1926 by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, then named the Bureau of Water Works and Supply. The department was under the supervision of its General Manager and Chief Engineer, William Mulholland.

At two and a half minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928 the dam failed catastrophically and the resulting flood killed up to 600 people. The collapse of the St. Francis Dam is considered to be one of the worst American civil engineering failures of the 20th century and remains the second-greatest loss of life in California’s history, after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and fire. The disaster marked the end of Mulholland’s career….

As the dam collapsed, the reservoir’s 12.4 billion U.S. gallons of water began to surge down San Francisquito Canyon in a dam break wave….”

Five minutes after the collapse, having traveled a distance of one and one-half miles at an average speed of 18 miles per hour, the now 120-foot-high flood wave destroyed the heavy concrete Powerhouse No. 2 and took the lives of 64 of the other 67 workmen and their families who lived nearby. The water traveled south down the canyon and began emptying into the Santa Clara riverbed. The amount of water was too great and caused it quickly to begin overflowing its banks, flooding parts of present-day Valencia and Newhall. The deluge, now 55 ft high, was generally following the course of the river bed west. In doing so, hit and demolished Southern California Edison Saugus substation, leaving the entire Santa Clara River Valley and part of the city of Ventura without power.

At this time, near 1:00 AM, at least four miles of the state’s main north-south highway (now Interstate 5) was under water and a short distance away, near what is presently the area around Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park to State Route 126, the flood was washing away the town of Castaic Junction. At a speed of 12 mph the water continued on and entered the valley. Approximately five miles downstream, near the Ventura and Los Angeles county line, on the flats of the river bank the Edison Company had set up had a temporary construction camp for its 150 man crew. Due to miscommunication and confusion among the Edison personnel, no warning was sent and 84 of them died.”

Guest Commentary: The dam collapse destroyed Mulholland who took the blame for it. However, neither the technology nor geologic understanding at the time existed that would have revealed that one of the dam’s abutments was tied into an ancient landslide. The reservoir saturated that slide and it gave way. The true cause of failure was not known until decades after the collapse. Mulholland went to his grave with the burden of nearly 500 needless deaths for which he felt responsible. (from Byron Buck, 3/12/16)

St. Francis Dam before the failure

Photo: Portion of the St. Francis Dam after the catastrophic failure AND St. Francis Dam before the failure

October 27, 1850: Cholera in Sacramento, California

Memorial to Courageous Physicians who Died in the Epidemic

Memorial to Courageous Physicians who Died in the Epidemic

October 27, 1850Cholera in Sacramento, California. “Alas for Sacramento in 1850, cholera is a disease that thrives in conditions of urban filth. The bacterium can be transmitted from one host to another through unwashed hands or raw sewage. When raw sewage containing the bacteria finds its way into the public water supply, cholera spreads rapidly. Its symptoms include severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. The disease strikes without warning. In the course of a single day, cholera can be fatal to a previously healthy person. Perkins wrote on October 27, ‘Some have been taken who were to all appearances in good health and have died in a few hours.’ Likewise, on October 23, Lord noted in his journal, ‘A man walking down J Street last evening, dropped suddenly, and lived only long enough to be carried into the nearest door.’

The first death from cholera occurred on October 20. The number of cases rapidly multiplied over the next few weeks, radiating into the city from the commercial riverside district….Public health measures proved to be worse than ineffective. A city ordinance passed on October 21 ordered residents to burn their garbage or face a $500 fine. Lord wrote that the ‘filth is burned in the middle of the streets—old shoes and boots and clothes by the ton, and cart loads of bones, and raw hides, and putrid meat, and spoiled bacon—so that the end of the matter is worse than the beginning.’ By the end of the month, half of the population of the city had either succumbed to the disease or fled the city. By the end of the first week of November, it was 80 percent. ‘In this pestilential reign of terror and dismay the most dreadful abandonments of relatives and friends took place’….”

Reference:  Isenberg, Andrew C. Mining California:  An Ecological History. New York:Hill and Wang, 2005, p.66.

Commentary The Sacramento 1850 epidemic was one of the worst in U.S. history.

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

0627 Los Angeles Water SupplybOctober 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. Wilson. 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.”