W is for Water

May 27th, 2007

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Prior to the 1750s, water was provided to residences in America by onsite wells or by water sellers who went door-to-door delivering water from nearby rivers or springs. Although Bethlehem, Pennsylvania can lay claim to the first pumped and piped water system in America (1754), it was not until 1801 that Philadelphia completed the first major community-wide waterworks. Philadelphia constructed its system largely in response to devastating epidemics in 1793 and 1798. In fact, epidemics (coupled with the need to control fires in dense urban centers), precipitated the development of many municipal water systems.

Until the 19th century, individual residential cesspools and the pail system for removal of waste from privy pits were the predominant means for waste collection and removal. The introduction of the water closet and piped water supply resulted in overflowing private cesspools. This motivated construction of community-wide collection systems to carry away sewage to rivers and streams. Unfortunately, this remedy often shifted the pollutants to the water intakes of communities downstream.

Solutions emerged in the development of filtration systems. The first slow sand filters for sewage were initiated in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1870. The next step forward, the intermittent filtration of sewage on sand beds (permitting air to enter initiating biological action and producing a clear and odorless effluent), was first used in a municipal system in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1908.

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