Where Should It Go? Newton's Sewer System

When a city gets a water system, sooner or later it needs a sewer system

Soon after the Civil War it became clear that Newtons house-keeping services, the so-called infrastructure, needed to be brought up to date. Despite enabling legislation and recommendations from various sources, nothing was done until 1874, when, at the urging of the Mayor, the first city administration turned its attention to the installation of a municipal water supply.

No sooner had the first households (in Ward 1) begun to enjoy water brought into their homes from the Charles River, than differences of opinion arose as to the best method of disposing of it once it was used. Some maintained that as, in time, there would no longer be household wells to be contaminated by cesspools, the cesspools could remain. Others were convinced that as consumption increased cesspools would become inadequate. The latter proved to be the case and, as the soil, particularly in Ward 1, became saturated, the need for the disposal of sewage other than on site became increasingly urgent. The question was: where should it go?

A special Commission on Drainage and Sewerage appointed in 1876 spent almost four years evaluating the various methods in use, or being tried, in Britain and Europe as well as in this country. None was trouble-free. In the method known as Chemical Treatment, all solids were removed before the water was treated, and a suitably large and remote site had to be found where the sludge could be dried and left to decompose. (Selling it as fertilizer had proved to be uneconomic.) Land Disposal, which involved using untreated effluent as an agricultural fertilizer, presented a similar problem.

It was estimated that Newton would need eighty acres of low-lying, well-drained soil at least two miles from the nearest habitation. It had been shown that the crop that grew best when fertilized with sewage was Italian rye grass, but as the hay did not always sell well except as fodder for "milch" cows, it was recommended that this method be used in conjunction with a dairy farm.

Dismissing both these options, the Commissioners and their consulting engineer recommended a third, namely Ocean Disposal. Although wasteful (everything was washed out to sea,) it was the least costly and the most practicable. Commissioners envisioned a system that would initially serve Wards 1 and 2 for perhaps fifteen to twenty years, but would be capable of expansion.

The main sewer would be built roughly along the line of Hyde (then known as Lemon) Brook till it reached the river. There, at a point more or less opposite the Watertown Arsenal, it would discharge its contents into the river to be carried out to Boston harbor by the next tide. (The Charles remained tidal until 1910 when the dam under the Museum of Science was built as a flood control measure.) There was some concern about the effect on the Charles, particularly as Boston, Cambridge, Brookline and Somerville were either contemplating or building disposal systems also dependent on the river, and the Commission expressed its regret that a metropolitan system was not being contemplated.

It would be almost a decade before the creation of the Metropolitan Drainage District (later absorbed by the MDC and now administered by the MWRA) and the construction of the interceptor sewer along the Charles that would take Newtons waste to the Moon Island treatment plant in the harbor.

To minimize the volume (and hence the cost) of water flowing into the Metropolitan sewer, Newton laid a network of subdrains immediately below the local sewers and house connections, so that groundwater that would otherwise have seeped into the sewer was collected through open joints, brought to the surface and discharged into the drainage system.

This had some unexpected consequences: in the 1890s the ornamental ponds in the Newton Cemetery ran dry when the underground spring that supplied them was drained during construction of the Newton Highlands sewer, and, more recently, Newton has had the advantage of being one of the few communities that did not have to separate sewerage and drainage systems as part of the current clean-up of Boston Harbor.

Surface drainage was partly the concern of the Board of Health. Even before the Anobuildablepheles mosquito was identified as the carrier of malaria, a connection was suspected between the disease and the miasmas emanating from open water bodies and "wet, rotten and spongy lands". But more pressing than the elimination of the few cases of malaria occurring annually, was the need to make the roads passable, keep basements dry and as time went on, provide dry, buildable land for future development. These tasks fell to the City Engineer.

The first brook to undergo major "improvements" was Cheese Cake, specially where it ran through the valley between Watertown Street and the Charles River. Work began there in 1869 and was still incomplete fifty years later; the last was South Meadow Brook. Following a 1905 agreement with the Saco Pettee (later Saco-Lowell) Machine Company (on Oak Street in Upper Falls), Otis Pettees old mill pond was drained and filled, making it possible for the brook to be channeled, diverted, culverted and deepened, thus lowering the ground water in the entire valley and making the development of the Oak Hill area possible.

In addition, hardly a year went by without some stream being channeled, or lowered, rerouted or culverted, or some wet meadow being drained or filled. It was not until the mid-1960s that the first legislation (the Hatch Act) was enacted to regulate alteration to riverbanks and wetlands. Newtons floodplain and wetland protection ordinance dates from 1970.