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October 31, 2005

Holy Crap!

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I don't know about anyone else, but sewer engineers and sewer workers get my vote as civilization's most undersung heroes. Prior to good sewer systems, city and town life was far too often a miasma of typhoid, cholera, and mucky mud -- and, as a practical fact, good sewer systems in our modern sense didn't even begin to be created until the 19th century.

That ain't so long ago! Before that time, pedestrians had to hope for fair warnings from above, and a city's sewage flowed untreated into the nearest body of water, which was usually the city's only source of drinking water. Heavy rainfall could be counted on to create boot-sucking, stinky misery, as well as waves of disease. The brilliant thinkers of the French Enlightenment? The wits of 18th century London? They were all living amidst what all of us would consider unimaginable filth.

Amusing story: When the British government moved into the Houses of Parliament in the mid-1800s, the stench from the nearby Thames was so bad that the MPs couldn't get any work done. Indeed, it was this fact that finally moved Parliament to arrange for good sewers to be constructed in London. Politicians, eh? Only when an issue affects them personally ...

And, lordy, the scale of the project that is modern sewage disposal ... A nifty fact that I picked up from a recent Modern Marvels episode concerns Los Angeles' Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant, located on the Pacific near LAX. It's a gigantic facility, as well as one of the world's most up-to-date. The amount of raw sewage that arrives at Hyperion every minute of every day, 365 days a year? 300,000 gallons. That's per minute.



posted by Michael at October 31, 2005


Interesting persepective. Sometimes we take for granted an innovation that changed the lives of everyone. I think Time Magazine or some other magazine recently had some article on the greatest inventions ever -- and it was all about TVs and airplanes, etc. But where would we be without our modern sewage system? We'd all be stuck under a huge pile of...

Posted by: Neil on November 1, 2005 8:02 AM

Michael: I sometimes think about the wonders of sewer treatment, too. Amazing statistic about the LA facility.

Posted by: jult52 on November 1, 2005 8:23 AM

Hey, I live in L.A., and I just want to say that no one can prove that I am personally responsible for most of that sewage.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 1, 2005 10:15 AM

I particularly like the "Dirty Jobs" show on TV.

Some weeks ago, the star worked for a day repairing sewers in San Francisco. Well worth watching. He spent the day in a virtual shower of cock roaches.

Here's a Woodstock story. Over a decade ago, the local environmental activists convinced the town to build the most advanced sewage system in history. "Sustainable" ecology, of course. The system was supposed to end in a garden of reeds supported by the effluent. These reeds were supposedly going to be burned for energy to make the town energy self-sufficient.

The system bombed completely. Total failure at an astronomical cost. By the time the disaster fully developed, homes in the town were paying $400 a month for water and sewage, and many restaurants were bankrupted by $1000 monthly bills.

Solution: Dig out the entire mess and replace it with a conventional sewage system. Eventually the Fed stepped in with a refinancing that gave home owners and businesses some relief.

Has this sobered the environmental zealots? Not at all, but that is another story.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on November 1, 2005 10:51 AM

excellent post. did you see the recent history channel special on the nhistory of sewers and waste disposal? fascinating stuff. Those Romans had a pretty sophisticated system.....

Posted by: larissa on November 1, 2005 3:10 PM

And before the 19th century nearly everyone lived on 25+ acre farms--more than enough to absorb their waste.

Posted by: onetwothree on November 2, 2005 6:44 PM

MB: Have you been up to Riverbank Park, which was built on top of a sewage treatment facility?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on November 2, 2005 10:22 PM

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