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Wasting Away

While Civil Engineers have played an integral part in providing many useful services and improvements to humanity, perhaps few have proved as important to life and health as sewage collection systems. Humans have by necessity settled near available sources of fresh water, (without which life ceases in just a few days). However, nearly every drop we use, whether for drinking, cooking, washing, etc. becomes polluted and offensive. The larger and more dense the community, the worse the potential problems arising from our use of the water.

Actually, the need for collecting and disposing of the water that man routinely pollutes was recognized long ago. Public sewers are said to have been found dating back as early as 3700BC. Portions of the early Roman sewer collection system built before the dawn of the Christian era were in service until the early 20th century.

Early-on, and extending even into 19th century England, there was no distinction between "sanitary" sewers and "storm" sewers; it was all just collected together and dumped untreated back into the nearest body of water. In the mid-1800's, epidemics of Asiatic cholera struck the City of London and it became clear that sewer water must not only be collected and kept separate from fresh water, but treated prior to being dumped in the water supply of your own or neighboring community.

In America, only 10 communities were served by sewer collection systems in 1860 and only 950 by 1900. Even today, not all areas in the U.S., particularly rural areas, benefit from sewage collection (oops, the politically-correct modern term is "wastewater" ) collection systems. But without those collection systems, and those who design them, our living environment would be such a wasteful place.

- John P. Wier, P.E., R.P.L.S., Historical Chair, Fort Worth Branch ASCE, July 2001

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