Enriching the Sea to Death; The Oceans; Scientific American Presents; by Nixon, sidebar by Schmiedeskamp; 6 Page(s)
The widespread pollution of Narragansett Bay began with a great celebration on Thanksgiving Day, 1871. For 10 full minutes, the church bells of Providence, R.I., rang out, and a 13-gun salute sounded. The townspeople were giving thanks for the completed construction of their first public water supply. Soon afterward clean water flowed through taps and flush toilets, liberating residents forever from backbreaking trips to the well and freezing visits to the privy. Millions learned the joys of running water between about 1850 and 1920, as towns throughout North America and Europe threw similar parties. But homeowners gave scant thought to how their gleaming new water closets would change the makeup of the oceans.
With the wonder of running water came the unpleasant problem of running waste. No longer was human excrement deposited discreetly in dry ground; the new flush toilets discharged streams of polluted water that often flowed through the streets. Town elders coped with the unhappy turn of events by building expensive networks of sewers, which invariably routed waste to the most convenient body of water nearby. In this way, towns quickly succeeded in diverting the torrent of waste from backyards and city streets to fishing spots, swimming holes and adjacent ocean shores. In many cases, the results were disastrous for the aquatic environment. And as the flow continues, society still struggles with the repercussions for the plants and animals that inhabit coastal waters.