Thank you for the opportunity to be here this morning. I am so honored to be here representing WEF at the NEWEA conference. What we as WEF and NEWEA members do is so critical to life as we know it. Those of us who have been involved in the water industry since the 1970’s have some idea of how far we have come, but many of the young professionals and even the seasoned professionals may not realize the difference we have made. Through the hard work and effort of our membership we have and will continue to make our nation’s waters swimmable and fishable. So let’s look at the last 100 years through a series of photos to help visualize this journey.
Taking a look way back at the beginning of the 20th century, in the US, water was both in great demand and greatly feared. Indoor plumbing was rare, especially in the countryside, and in cities it was inadequate at best.
Most garbage and wastes were just left in piles in the alleys and side streets. Tenements housing as many as 2,000 people typically didn’t even have one bathtub.
Untreated industrial waste went straight into rivers and lakes, many of which were sources of drinking water. Raw sewage was often dumped directly into streets and open gutters.
As a result, waterborne diseases were rampant. Dysentery and diarrhea, the most common of the waterborne diseases, were the nation's third leading cause of death. Cholera outbreaks were a constant threat and it was traced to microorganisms living in contaminated water.
Attempts to purify water for drinking were inadequate, and very few, if any, municipalities treated wastewater at all. Early in the century, the most pressing task was to find better ways to make water clean so that people could drink it without getting sick.
These early water treatment systems were designed to remove particulate matter suspended in water, typically by using various techniques to coagulate into solids into heavier clumps that would settle out and also by filtering the water through sand and other fine materials. Some harmful microorganisms were removed in this way, but it wasn't good enough. A British scientist was the first to start adding chlorine to water to remove the pathogenic bacteria. He found that it killed a wide range of bacteria and because it persisted in residual amounts provided ongoing protection. This left water free of disease and safe to drink and allowed it to be conveyed over long distances from a central treatment plant. In 1908, Jersey City became the first municipality in the US to institute chlorination of its water supply, followed that same year by the Bubbly Creek plant in Chicago. The value of disinfection speaks for itself: a deadly handful of waterborne diseases were virtually eliminated. By 1918 more than 1,000 American cities were chlorinating 3 billion gallons of water a day, and by 1923 the typhoid death rate had dropped by more than 90 percent from its level of only a decade before.
Water distribution systems began pumping a clean supply into homes, apartments, businesses, and factories meeting the needs of tens of millions of people in cities and communities. All told, what 20th-century engineers did to improve the water supply brought about stunning transformations—in public health, in living standards, and in both urban and agricultural development.
However, the treatment of water for drinking purposes was only a part of the solution. Water experts also recognized that wastewater would have to be treated, and soon engineers were developing procedures for handling wastewater that paralleled those being used for drinking water. It wasn't long before sewage treatment plants were built in many of the cities and water quality started to improve. But that improvement was not sustainable.
But, because of population and industrial growth and the inadequacies associated with early treatment plants, we again found ourselves losing ground. By the mid to late 1960’s many of America's great waterways -- so vital to our health, our commerce and our very identity as a nation -- had once again become places to avoid.
The Cuyahoga River often caught fire and Lake Erie was turbid brown, with green swirls and dead floating fish. The Kennebec River was a stinking open sewer, filled with pollution, covered with scum. The Hudson River contained bacteria levels of 170 times the safe limit.
Raw and partially treated sewage and industrial wastes were routinely discharged into rivers, lakes and coastal. Unfortunately, there was no mechanism in place to effectively control the pollution that was fouling America's waters. But in 1972, things changed when the Clean Water Act passed both Houses of Congress and America got serious about addressing the pollution threat and restoring the quality of the nation's waters. By any measure, this landmark legislation was hugely successful.
Once-dead waterways began pulsating with life. People began returning to the rivers --, to fish, to boat…
And to swim… Pollution from large industries was greatly reduced. Funding made possible by the Clean Water Act had enabled communities in the watershed to fully treat their sewage.
Wildlife returned to the rivers and ecosystems were restored.
Across the nation, urban waterfront areas came back and development built along the waterways as the most desired locations.
Since then, we as water professionals have continued to work hard to eliminate pollution and improve national water quality. It is significant to note that in January 2007, the British Medical Journal announced that sanitation was chosen as the most important medical advancement in the protection of public health and the Center for Disease Control and prevention credits wastewater treatment for helping to increase the average life expectancy in the US by nearly 30 years. We have accomplished a great deal, but we still have significant water quality issues, requiring different and more complex solutions than before. Over 40% of our US waters do not have quality that meets their intended uses.
We have polluted water bodies capturing headlines daily from a dead zone the size of Massachusetts in the Gulf of Mexico, mercury in the Everglades and invasive mussels in the Great Lakes that are destroying the fisheries and ecology. Today’s dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and even Lake Erie are not due to poorly treated wastewater, but rather to failed agricultural practices.
In fact, over 90% of our impaired waters are caused in whole or in part due to nonpoint sources, yet we do not have regulatory programs that adequately address these problems.
Furthermore, as the visible condition of our water has improved during the past three decades, we have become increasingly aware of invisible impacts from mercury, dioxin, arsenic, and microconstituents (pharmaceuticals, personal care products, etc.). These problems are often difficult to understand, and expensive to fix.
We have an aging infrastructure that needs repair and replacement, and we have major issues with wet weather, nutrients but we do not have suitable funding or legislation that reflect the realities of today’s watersheds.
And we are also faced with the challenges of Global climate change and what it means to our profession and treatment facilities.
When it comes to sustainability of our planet, nothing is more important than preserving and protecting our precious-and irreplaceable --water resources.
The problems that we have to solve now are more complex and more costly that what were faced in the 1970’s and the resources to address these changes are limited. The work that WEF and NEWEA do in training and educating our engineers, scientists and operators is critical to solving these problems. This NEWEA conference with its strong program which not only addresses core topics but also looks a hot topics just emphasizes this commitment. The peer-reviewed educational materials WEF produces, such as MOP 11 and MOP 8 which are continually updated to reflect the more complex treatment processes, the hot topic specialty conferences and webinares are a vital link to improving water quality.
But it is not enough. We need to do a better job in educating the public so they understand the value of water and are willing to pay full cost pricing. WEF and NEWEA and all the other MA’s and water stewards need to educate the public so they put more value on water quality than they do on cable television. We need more research to solve these problems, especially in plant research; we need innovation and our commitment to reducing our carbon footprint; to unique ways of using our systems and by-products to produce energy; we need to educate the public on the use and disposal of personal care products and pharmaceutical and we need to be an example in our communities by promoting sustainable and environmentally sound practices. We are the water stewards and we must lead by example.It’s going to take all of us. We need every stakeholder to do their part: agriculture, industry, government agencies, water and wastewater plants, and equally important…. the citizens. WEF and many other water stewards are having an impact on America’s knowledge of water, its value, and the need to protect it. We have the help of some individuals who cared enough about water to start a movement to create awareness and make a difference in cleaning up water and further protecting it for the future.
2010 Opening Session - JBrown
Jeanette Brown President Elect Water Environment Federation
photo credit James Thomas, from Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library