Stream Pollution and the Disposal of Waste

September 17, 1935

Report Outline
Overburdening of American Waterways with Waste
Methods Employed in Treatment of Sewage
Recent Progress in Waste Disposal
Legal and Judicial Aspects of Stream Pollution
Special Focus

Overburdening of American Waterways with Waste

The seriousness of stream pollution in the United States is attested by the number of recent developments bearing on sewage disposal methods and the overburdening of the country's watercourses. Communities long in need of sewage treatment plants are availing themselves of federal aid in the form of grants and loans from the Public Works Administration. Large plants are being erected in communities that have throughout their history depended solely on the diluting power of adjacent waters. Regional authorities, such as the Interstate Sanitation Commission for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, are being set up to coordinate the corrective measures of neighboring states. A bill to prevent pollution of navigable waters was introduced in the last session of Congress. And the Supreme Court has given impetus to the movement to clean up the country's waters by refusing to permit delays in the huge sewage treatment project which Chicago must complete by December, 1938. The city is forbidden by the Court's decree to divert the waters of Lake Michigan after that date for the purpose of carrying its sewage to the Illinois River.

Growth of the Problem of Stream Pollution

Three factors combine to make sewage disposal an increasingly grave problem: growth in population, location of cities away from major watercourses, and a swelling volume of industrial waste. In the early life of the country the waterways provided an adequate answer to the sewage problem. The larger cities were located on the coast, on the Great Lakes or on the major inland rivers. Factory wastes were small in volume and simple in chemical content, and for both domestic and industrial sewage the nearby waterways afforded ample purification. But the diluting capacity of streams is limited. The United States Geological Survey asserts that a stream can purify no more than one-fifth of its volume of sewage. As the country grew, the sewage of its added millions, the increased factory wastes of its expanding industries, and the concentration of populations in large centers threw greater burdens on its rivers and coastal waters. Inland cities, moreover, sprang up along the banks of smaller streams, inadequate to absorb the wastes of growing communities.

Widespread stream and harbor pollution resulting from this over-reliance on waterways for sewage disposal has in recent years assumed alarming proportions. While most communities require at least partial treatment of sewage before it is deposited in adjacent waters, the process in an overwhelming number of cases is superficial. Many major cities situated on the coasts or on large rivers depend almost entirely on the natural processes of surrounding waters whose diluting capacity has long since been passed. In the field of waste disposal, profoundly affecting the health of the community, the natural beauty of streams, lakes and harbors, marine life, recreational facilities, and realty values, the United States is far behind the more advanced industrial nations of Europe, particularly Great Britain. While approximately 75 per cent of England's waste is adequately treated by the most modern scientific methods, it is estimated that less than 20 per cent of sewage in the United States is exposed to even the simplest treatment, and only about 5 per cent is purified with any degree of thoroughness.

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Sep. 17, 1935  Stream Pollution and the Disposal of Waste
Water Pollution