Often thought of as the Number 2 issue in urban planning, where we put human waste is usually a subject that most people don’t want to think about. But it’s a topic that has potentially epidemic consequences if bungled. Fortunately, we’re pretty good at disposing of our waste water, with billions of dollars of infrastructure dedicated to that purpose alone.
As sophisticated as our systems are today, the field has not always been so flush with effective sewage infrastructure. Public roads up until the 20th century were really disgusting places. All kinds of animal poop (primarily horse manure, but also human, dog, and livestock waste) littered the street. Super-Freakonomics noted that in New York City the horse manure piled up so high that when there was heavy rain, there would be a literal wave of feces washing down the street.
To further demonstrate the importance of modern sanitation, consider Chicago. As an interesting article put it, “The city was literally shaped by excrement.” As the city grew explosively in the 19th century, it had to constantly adjust where it evacuated its waste vis-à-vis where it drew its freshwater. This was an imprecise science at best (there were frequent cholera epidemics when human waste drifted to the drinking-water intake location, in one instance killing off 6% of the city’s population).
Chicago ended up having to jack up the entire city by three feet to improve drainage; reversed the flow of the Chicago River to pipe its sewage away (and into the Mississippi River); and eventually built the largest sewage treatment plant in the world.
In short, it took a lot of engineering, money, and effort to make Chicago the Windy City, and not the Stinky City.
Where Pioneer Valley Waste Water Goes
Fortunately, we no longer live in such crappy times.
I was curious one day, and looked up exactly what the end-point of that flush-initiated journey is. So here is the list you’ve been waiting for: the sewage treatment plants of the Pioneer Valley.
- Bondi’s Island – This sewage treatment plant is located in Agawam, and serves Springfield and surrounding suburbs. It was built in the late 1930s and has been expanded over the years to comply with the Clean Water Act, add service to surrounding communities, and even hosts the area’s landfill.
Also, it’s not an island…
- Holyoke Sewage Treatment Plant – Like a lot of old cities, Holyoke has a system that combines its sewage and storm water. This system worked fine back when it all went directly into the Connecticut River. Today, it puts a terrible strain on waste water treatment plants when there is heavy rain. This is why some areas have “high bacteria days.” The treatment plants can’t handle all the rainwater coming in with the sewage, and so release the untreated overflow directly into the river, or lake, or bay. Holyoke’s plant has been working to reduce those overflow events, and treats about 500 million gallons of waste water per year.
- Northampton Wastewater Treatment Plant – Northampton, like Holyoke and Springfield, dumps its effluent into the Connecticut River. There is a pretty interesting report on the system here. There is even a nice little diagram included of all the parts of the plant:
And I also found a cool video of how the plant works:
So where does our “waste” go? The bottom line is that most of it winds up in the Connecticut River, hopefully after going through several cycles of treatment. It may seem gross, but modern sanitation is really what makes urban living possible. Next time you don’t get cholera (which should be always), remember to thank your toilet.