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History of the American Sewer System

In the season 3 opener of Ted Lasso, the American coach takes his faltering Greyhounds into the British sewer system to make a metaphorical point. His striker Jamie Tartt puts the metaphor into words, “It’s just poopy. Let it flow.” When it comes to sewage, truer words may never have been spoken, and we’re not speaking in metaphors.

Sewage systems date back to at least 4,000 BCE in Babylon where cesspits were used to collect bodily waste. This was the model that lasted for thousands of years with some modifications, such as the use of brick lined pits similar to today’s septic tank that were used in the Indus Valley around 2,500 BCE or the Romans addition of storm water drains in about 800 BCE that flushed excrement and other debris away from the streets where they were dumped. This was the model that was largely adopted for centuries in European cities.

In London, for example, trenches were dug in streets that channeled waste toward cesspits, but the waste was often chucked from windows into the streets and was washed into the trenches. Rapid growth in the city led to an overload on cesspits and the resulting squalid conditions were conducive to the spread of disease. The “Great Stink” of the 1830s caused some to wonder of the connection between sewage conditions and the spread of disease. In 1840, an English doctor named John Snow posited that a number of cholera epidemics may be caused by contaminated drinking water. He proved his theory by shutting down certain systems and demonstrating that disease rates fell in these areas. Hence the era of modern sewage systems was born.

Here in America, sewage systems were slow to modernize. New York had one of the first systems, when the then Dutch-controlled city created a rudimentary sewer overnight built by workers who dug a central channel down Broad Street that was fed by gutters from other parts of the city. As the need for clean water became clear, Philadelphia created the nation’s first major metropolitan waterworks, using pumping stations to fill elevated tanks that then used gravity to send cleaner water to residents.

In the 1850s, Chicago and Brooklyn were the first cities to create modern sewage systems that utilize centralized drainage systems where water was pumped to houses and waste was flushed into sewer pipes. Chicago’s system embodied, however, a problem of the system as it stood at the time. Waste was channeled into pipes laid under roads that also collected storm run-off and this was directed into Lake Michigan. It quickly became clear that the city’s water source was becoming polluted by the sewage laced run-off. Here’s where the nonchalance of Jamie Tartt’s quip comes into play: the city answered by creating a system of channels that redirected sewage into the Mississippi River. Chicago’s problem got solved, but not so much for the cities and towns down river. “Let it flow” was a widespread practice but not an effective solution.

As early as 1925, cities like Milwaukee began processing sewage sludge, but it wasn’t until Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 and the Clean Water Act of 1977 that cities in the U.S. truly focused on the treatment of water. Prior to these resolutions, most cities practiced only primary treatments where trash and debris were filtered, solids were allowed to settle out of the mix, and then the resulting fluid was flushed into our water systems. Today’s sewage systems practice secondary treatment as well, which removes the organic polluting materials that foul waterways. They also treat wastewater with chlorine to kill off any lasting bacteria.

Written by Ivan Young

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