The History of Water Infrastructure and What We Can Learn From It

This article is in support of the Imagine a Day Without Water campaign – a national online movement to raise awareness about the value of water and water infrastructure.

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By David Drake, Technical Director

On October 8, 500,000 B.C., Dugdug and Tugtug were thirsty, but the nearest water was the crocodile pond at the bottom of the hill, at least two stone’s throws from their camp. Tugtug suggested that they bring some water back to the camp in a couple of hollow gourds she found in the woods. Dugdug agreed. They fetched the water and stored it at the top of the hill to drink later. Sadly, Dugdug was eaten by a crocodile on the way back. But, Tugtug was happy to have clean, safe water whenever she wanted it that day.

Thus the first water transportation infrastructure project was completed. Well, maybe it didn’t go exactly like that. The point is that the need for getting, moving, storing and cleaning water has been around for as long as people. The Assyrians built the first known agricultural aqueducts around 2,700 years ago to move water 50 miles across northern Iraq to Nineveh. Between 200 B.C. and A.D. 300 the Romans created an advanced network of aqueducts for bringing water to Rome and other major cities. Around A.D. 1400, the Incas at Machu Picchu transported drinking water from a distant mountain spring to their Capitol through an impressive series of sloping canals.

The earliest planned piped water distribution systems were installed, not for drinking water, but for firefighting. Communities connected cisterns to stone tubes or hollowed-out logs that provided water close to key buildings or neighborhoods. Boston installed the first gravity-fed firefighting water distribution system in North America in 1652. A natural byproduct of distributed water was its use as a source of drinking water. Unfortunately, that sometimes turned out to be a deadly idea.

As human populations grew and people moved from the countryside to concentrate in cities, lack of clean water and sanitation became a crisis. Sewage was released into the same waterways that provided drinking water. Water and wastewater-borne diseases became commonplace: cholera, dysentery and typhoid spread across much of the Middle East, Asia and Europe. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that people learned that microbes and parasites in contaminated drinking water were the sources of these diseases. Starting in England, and quickly spreading across Western Europe, communities learned to keep wastewater and drinking water separate. They installed piping that brought clean water from upstream sources into cities, then waste was released downstream. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, chlorination and filtration improved water quality even more. The introduction of cast iron pipes in the 1800s allowed for the pressurized movement of water over significant distances and through elevation changes.

What most would consider to be modern water and wastewater systems started to become common in the developed world after 1910. High volume water treatment facilities with advanced filtration and disinfection equipment were built in London, Paris, New York, Chicago and other large cities. However, wastewater treatment was the exception rather than the rule in the U.S. until passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Today, more than one million miles of drinking water pipes form a distribution web that stretches from coast to coast across the U.S. An additional 800,000 miles of sewer pipes handle our waste every day. However, we still have to deal with the day-to-day problem of keeping us safe. Treatment facilities, pumping stations, pipelines, reservoirs and other expensive infrastructure are aging and in need of repair or replacement. In this age of terrorism we divert scarce resources for the purpose of providing new water security measures where before none were thought necessary. It’s time for a major investment in America’s water systems.

Posted in Fire Protection, Home Column Post, News, Water and Wastewater