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Water Treatment History

We live on a water planet, covering over 70% of the earth's surface. Oceans contain 97 % of the Earth's water (by volume), which is too salty for drinking, irrigation or industrial use. That leaves 3% of earth's total water that's considered fresh water. About 2.997% of this fresh water is trapped in polar ice caps and deep within earth surface, which is too costly to extract. That leaves only .003% of earth's total available water by volume available for human use. If the world’s water were contained in 100 liters or 26 gallons, then what is readily available to us would amount to one-half teaspoon.

Long before humans learned to rub two sticks together to make fire or took a hammer and chisel in hand to carve out the first wheel, they thirsted for pure drinking water. Evidence from almost all historical periods suggests that people took measures to ensure a fresh drink of water. But sometimes that drink came with more than its thirst quenching qualities

Early humans thought that the taste and look of the water determined its purity, and they did not consider that even the best tasting, clearest water could contain disease-causing organisms. We know now that just because water tastes good, it is not necessarily safe to drink. However, the efforts of these water treatment pioneers were not in vain. It was through their trials and errors that we now know how to make water safe to drink.

4000 years ago, in India and parts of China, the Hindu’s devised the first recorded drinking water standards. It directed its people to heat foul water by boiling and exposing to sunlight and by dipping seven times into a piece of hot copper, then to filter and cool in an earthen vessel. This enlightened treatment not only produced aesthetically acceptable water, but a disinfected potable source. This treatment was a directive intended for individuals and families, not a community water supply.

After 1500 BC, the Egyptians first discovered the principle of coagulation. They applied the chemical alum for suspended particle settlement. Pictures of this purification technique were found on the wall of the tomb of Amenophis II and Ramses II.

Ancient Device

Image Caption: This ancient Egyptian clarifying device was found pictured on the wall of the tomb of Amenophis II at Thebes. The inscription was carved in 1450 B.C.

Only after the Dark Ages, due to advances in science and technology, was there a realization that clean looking water was not necessarily safe water. Before the invention of the microscope, the idea of microscopic life was unimagined. Even with that tool it still took over 200 years before a connection between microbes and disease was made. In the mid 19th Century it was proven that cholera was spread by contaminated waters. By the late 19th Century, Louis Pasteur developed the particulate germ theory of disease, which finally established a cause and effect relationship between microbes and disease.

Filtration of water was established as a method of clarifying water in the 18th Century. In 1832 the first municipal water treatment plant was built in Scotland. Unfortunately the aesthetic properties of the water were the major concerns of the time, while effective water quality standards remained absent until the late 19th Century.

In the US, municipal water systems originated as early as 1799, by 1860 over 400 were in service providing water to major cities and towns. Because water quality standard were lacking, these systems contributed to major outbreaks of disease by spreading pathogenic organisms.

In the 1890’s effective water treatment techniques began to develop. Coagulation and rapid sand filtration were instituted, which significantly reduced both turbidity and bacteria in water supplies. Chlorination of water was eventually introduced in 1908. Finally a community's water supply could, in fact, be considered safe.

Buffalo’s water system history began in 1827, when the Buffalo & Black Rock Jubilee Water Works was formed. It supplied well and spring water through an assemblage of wooden pipes. In 1852 the Buffalo Water Works Co. formed, and pumped its water from the Niagara River. The City of Buffalo purchased both companies in 1868 and began construction of an Intake and tunnel system in the Niagara River. This location proved unfortunate. River turbulence and shoreline pollution caused a public outcry for a new intake. In 1913 this new intake was completed. It was located upstream from the original one, in Lake Erie’s Emerald Channel. In 1914 Buffalo began chlorinating its delivered water, and in 1926 the Water Treatment Plant was built utilizing coagulation and filtration along with disinfection of its delivered water.