Water Trivia and Tragedy

Working in the wastewater industry, it is very obvious that few people realize how the cycle of obtaining, using and disposing of water are connected and dependant upon each other. Jim vonMeier wants to shed some light on the process and lay out how water has played a critical role in the growth of America, how poor planning has put the future of our water at risk, and most importantly, how you can play a role in saving this valuable resource.

Most cities are built on rivers, but this is not because they make a picturesque setting on a postcard or a city’s website. A few hundred years ago, roads were not a natural phenomenon that magically appeared, people had to build them. And because power equipment wasn’t readily available, that meant cutting them by hand. Not a fun job.

Rivers, essentially, were the freeway system for this growing country. But they were more than just for travel; they also gave a fairly consistent supply of drinking water, which was critical in the days before drilling rigs became commonplace.

People also harnessed the rivers for power. At first, water wheels were used to run grain and lumber mills. As time went on, however, people realized that by building a dam, they could generate electricity. From there they realized that by building one big enough, the resulting manmade lake could be used for drinking water.

As the cities grew and became more modernized, people moved past hauling water in buckets and pumped it directly to water towers and reservoirs where it was then piped into homes and businesses. This is where another use for that river came in that you seldom hear about: they were also used as a method of sewage disposal. Back in those days, dilution was the solution, not treatment. The river became the toilet, and nature flushed it away.

Planners began to realize it might be a good idea to take the drinking water out of the river where it came into the city, and at that point, the drinking water went one way, and the sewage was routed another way through a maze of tunnels and open ditches. It was then discharged into the river downstream from the city.

This system was good for that particular city, not so good for the people living further downstream. The human gut can carry more than 100 disease-causing parasites and viruses, and when that is going into the river via human waste anybody and everybody who drinks from that water supply is put at risk of contracting those diseases. However, there are other sources for these nasty little parasites, like run-off from farm animals and other creatures out in the wild who use water sources as their bathroom.

This has had quite the impact. The average life span of an American in the year 1900 was forty-seven years old. Waterborne diseases like cholera, typhoid, yellow fever and malaria were rampant. In the days before antibiotics, recovery from contracting one of these diseases was slim.

Around that time, many cities began realizing they needed to do something. In 1910, for example, the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota began treating the water before they sent it out to its users, and the results were nothing short of amazing. In the first year of using this method, the occurrence of deaths from typhoid, alone, dropped more than 75%.

There was still the problem of raw, untreated sewage being dumped into the Mississippi River. According to several residents alive during that time, a few years of drought had caused the Mississippi’s level to drop extremely low. As a result, huge mats of human excrement were exposed in the heart of Minneapolis. The smell made working, living and eating a real adventure and prompted the city to start treating sewage before they dumped it back in the river.

Some historians have listed sewage treatment as one of the greatest achievements in modern history.

Although small towns, industries and individual homes continued to dump raw sewage, the quality of the rivers began improving all over the country when major cities started cleaning their sewage.

Look at the process; people were taking water out of the river and putting it back where it came from. Sure, they lost some along the way, but at least they were giving a large portion back. It may not have been perfect, but, all in all, it was a good program.

As the population grew, so did the demand for water, and because surface sources were subject to uncontrollable problems, such as droughts, there were some cities that began augmenting their supplies by drilling wells and tapping into huge reserves of water located underground. Some began using groundwater exclusively because there was a real benefit to this method—it often didn’t need the intense treatment that surface water required because it had already been “filtered” through the soil. That also meant it was cheaper.

However, in doing so, people were taking water out of a supply but not putting any back in. The thought at the time was that water supplies were so vast and got recharged with summer rain and snow melt, that they would last forever, which, of course, proved to be a myth. These aquifers took tens of thousands, even millions, of years to form. Maybe if the population didn’t go up and everyone continued to live in the city it would have worked out.

By the late 1940s, things began to change. Not only did the population start climbing at an astounding rate due to post-war Baby Boomers, but where Americans lived also shifted. With improvements in road and rail transportation, people migrated to the suburbs to live and commuted into the city for work. Keep in mind, the cities had the rivers, but the suburbs did not, so people started punching high capacity wells.
But where did the wells discharge their sewage to? In most cases, to a treatment plant that dumped into the nearest river (it’s pretty tough to dump millions of gallons of water into a ditch). And what do all rivers flow into? The ocean. This wide-spread practice was the beginning of the United States blindly moving in a direction that resulted in an unhappy ending.

By the 1970s, this new style of living was full steam ahead with more people living in the suburbs than in the city. More homes and businesses could be crammed into these areas with a treatment plant, which meant growth, which meant prosperity. But it also brought a greater demand for groundwater and, today, many suburbs have multiple high capacity wells that pull 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Particularly with suburban living, our nation has been pumping groundwater supplies and dumping it via treatment facilities into the rivers, and now that note is coming due. In the next few years, one-third of the states will be on the brink of a water emergency, in five years, it could be double that. However, we, meaning you, can do something about it.

Most homeowners think septic systems are merely a method of disposing sewage because they are not lucky enough to live in range of the pipe. There are several advantages to onsites, and the biggest benefit is that they help recharge the groundwater supplies. No one is bothering to tell the public this. All people hear is that septic systems fail, they pollute, they’re expensive…while, in the same breath, they’re told how great the pipe will make their lives.

I began pointing out to my neighbors how the town is pulling 300,000 gallons of water out of the ground everyday and pumping it nine miles via a ditch to the Mississippi River. As a result, our local water supplies are dropping. Of the six council members, four of them seemed surprised and genuinely concerned, and two of them were rather incensed, inferring that I was making them look like villains.
I am not trying to make the town look like bad guys; this community has done nothing illegal or different than thousands of other communities around the state and country have done to help their communities grow and prosper. However, knowing what we know now, it is time to start thinking about the long-term effects before people start digging and dumping.

Those experts who do acknowledge the problem will likely say, “It is farming that is using up all of our water.” True, farming does use a tremendous amount of water, but they don’t just pull it out of the ground and ship it downstream to the ocean like a treatment facility does. They put it on the ground and some of it does make it back to recharge those supplies.

If you keep making larger withdrawals than deposits, the bank is eventually going to close your account. The same is true for our water supply. People do not bother to look at the future, they only look at today. I’m just amazed that no one is seeing this obvious problem and the (septic) solution. 

Story by Jim vonMeier

Jim vonMeier performs educational programs directed at homeowners teaching them the health and environmental need for proper septic systems and how to find a certified septic professional to inspect, design, install and maintain their systems. He has also represented homeowners in their fight against public sewer projects and speaks at contractor programs around the country on the subject of customer service.
1-763-856-3800  jvonmeier@septicprotector.com

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