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In celebration of BWSC's 40th anniversary

Historical Milestones of Boston's Water and Sewer Systems

July 18th, 2017 marks Boston Water and Sewer Commission's (BWSC) 40th anniversary of maintaining and operating Boston's water, sewer and storm water systems. BWSC consistently deliver high quality potable water and efficient sanitary sewer services to over a million people every day, and has done so with fiscal integrity and in a manner that protects and promotes public health and the environment. BWSC's creation comes from an extensive and detailed water and sewer history in the City of Boston dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. In honor of this day, we are sharing some of the most significant events that brought us here today. Below are some important moments outlining Boston's water and sewer history.

Water Facts

Jamaica Pond. One of Bostons original water sources.
Jamaica Pond. One of Boston's original water sources.
  • Colonists' decision in 1630 to settle in what is today Boston was influenced primarily by its supply of fresh water. The new colonists searched for a reliable supply of fresh water until discovering the "excellent spring" by today's Faneuil Hall and City Hall. This allowed the population to develop and grow, eventually influencing the city to expand to new water sources.
  • Early records indicate that Bostonians relied on local wells, rain barrels and a spring coming from the Boston Common for their water.
  • As Boston's population grew, the city's water source changed to Jamaica Pond in 1795. Water was delivered into the city through a series of hollowed-out wooden logs which served as pipes.
  • By the mid 19th century Jamaica Pond's water supply had become inadequate for Boston's continuously growing population. Difficulty maintaining water supply and quality eventually influenced Boston to draw from Lake Cochituate. The "Cochituate System" was created in the mid-19th century and had a great influence on today's modern water system. Its role was to distribute water to the Brookline reservoir - which in turn distributed water off to three smaller reservoirs around Boston.
A section taken from a wooden water main circa 1795.
A section taken from a wooden water main circa 1795.
  • Do you know what East Boston High School, South Boston High School and the State House all have in common? All were sites of former reservoirs that were part of the Cochituate Distribution System.
  • The first water from Lake Cochituate flowed into the Frog Pond on Boston Common in 1848 at a dedication ceremony that drew 100,000 people.
  • Boston's centuries long search for a pure upland source of water that could be delivered by gravity and not require filtration was achieved with the construction of the Quabbin Reservoir from1926 to 1946. To this day, water delivered to Boston travels by gravity in a pipeline from the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs.
  • The Quabbin, holding 412 billion gallons of water is the largest man-made water source in the world. Distribution of Quabbin is sent to 51 cities and towns, including Boston.

Sewer Facts

Women pose inside Boston's newly constructed sewers circa 1900.
Women pose inside Boston's newly constructed sewers circa 1900.
  • In 1842, the Boston Commissioner of Sewers stated that there was no effective way to turn human waste to fertilizer. Fast forward toward today, our partners, MWRA; use our human waste from 43 cities and towns to make fertilizer with the help from MA Bay State Fertilizer.
  • With arrival of more water sources and modern sanitation facilities, rapidly growing Greater Boston needed a modern sewer system, and got one. In 1876 legislators approved construction of the Boston Main Drainage System, and for several years building of new sewers and repair of old sewers was undertaken.
  • In the late 19th century, Boston was truly ahead of its time with its sewer infrastructure. An intricate system of brick-laid tunnels and gates gave Boston a world-class sewer system ahead of many other cities at the time. In fact, city officials and foremen were so proud of their work that many of them took their families down into the sewer to pose for portraits.
An MWRA Diffuser.
An MWRA Diffuser.
  • Did you know that at Deer Island includes a sludge-to-fertilizer facility and primary and secondary treatment capabilities, among its other advanced features? The wastewater at Deer Island is cleaned and treated to the point where it can be released into Massachusetts Bay. MWRA uses underwater spaceship-like "sprinklers" called diffusers to help deliver the water safely into the ocean.

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