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Wastewater Management Throughout History

Jul 25, 2022


Many of us have grown accustomed to the luxury of toilets and the pipelines that keep wastewater out of sight and out of mind.

For 14 municipalities in Atlantic County, critical infrastructure carries sewage directly from homes and businesses to the ACUA’s Wastewater Treatment Facility. The plant’s treatment process cleans this dirty water so it can safely enter the environment. This process plays a vital role in preventing water pollution – protecting wildlife and making local waterways safe for swimming, fishing and other recreational activities.

Throughout its history, wastewater management has undergone many innovations to benefit the communities we live in and can be traced all the way back to Ancient Times.

The Beginning – Ancient Times

Humans began developing systems for disposing of human waste during ancient times. Humans in early history were scattered over wide areas, so the ecological impact of their waste was minimal. Before civilizations were built, most human waste was disposed of through holes in the ground that were covered up. When settlements were established and populations increased, wastewater management started to become a public health issue. Densely populated communities generated such large quantities of sewage that simple dilution did not prevent pollution.

The Mesopotamians are believed to be the first to address wastewater sanitation around 3500 BC. Homes in settlements from the Mesopotamian Empire were connected to a drainage system that carried their waste to cesspits. While this system may not be as advanced, it was a precursor for the sewers systems we have today.

The first evidence of wastewater treatment is believed to have been created by the Indus civilization around 2500 BC. Houses were connected to drains made of terracotta pipes which led wastewater to sumps. Solids settled in the sumps while liquids flowed to drainage channels.

Roman Empire (27 BC to 476 AD)

Roman engineering perfected the art of water and sewer pipes. Their infrastructure was constructed to serve all citizens and better protect public health. The system managed the water cycle from collection of spring water to disposal of storm and wastewater. Romans realized the importance of keeping drinking water clean and separate from wastewater. The system was so advanced, they recycled wastewater from spas to help flush latrines.

One of the most famous and impressive sewer systems built during Roman times was the Cloaca Maxima. It is the largest known ancient sewer system, spread throughout the city-center with many smaller sewers making it up. The wastewater channels can be found in all major cities of the Roman empire. The channels were made from a variety of engineering and construction techniques, using slopes and gravity to flow wastewater toward receiving bodies of water.

The Sanitary Dark Ages (476 AD to 1800)

Water and wastewater sanitation was abandoned during the Dark Ages. Sewer systems were neglected, and wastewater was discharged without any treatment, leading to the spread of diseases.

Households did not have drains to carry wastewater away. Instead, people used chamber pots, which are portable toilets, and emptied them out in the street. As plagues began to spread throughout Europe, cities began to impose regulations on waste disposal. Homeowners were instructed to build cesspools for sewage collection to reduce contamination of drinking water. The cesspools were emptied outside of the city limits.

The Industrial Age

During the 19th century, countries began addressing the negative impact wastewater had on public health with industrialization.

One impactful event took place in London during the summer of 1858. The city responded to the “Great Stink”, when “hot weather exposed the rotting human effluent and industrial waste polluting the water of the Thames River,” with the construction of the Bazalgette sewer system to funnel the waste outside of London. While it helped keep waste off the streets of London, the system did not use any form of treatment other than dilution.

In the United States during the early 1800s, community sewers were constructed for stormwater while human waste was poorly managed. Towns used methods like cesspools and chamber pots, which were often emptied into streets, eventually leading human waste to stormwater sewers.

Wastewater Treatment During the World Wars

In the early 1900’s scientific understanding began to discover the negative impacts of pollution and governments began to prioritize pollution control. Treatment processes, like aeration were discovered and introduced.

Unfortunately, both World Wars delayed development of wastewater treatment and led to increasing pollution of waterways. After the end of World War II, there was rapid progress in wastewater treatment in the United Kingdom and in the United States.

Local Wastewater Management History

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, many waterways in the United States continued to be polluted with waste and toxic chemicals. In response, the federal government created the Clean Water Act. The federal law became effective in 1972 and required wastewater to be cleaned to a much higher level before being discharged.

At the time, Atlantic County had more than 20 small, outdated sewage treatment plants, most of which discharged effluent into streams, tidal waters and other surface waters. Over the years, the situation resulted in the degradation of the county's fresh water resources, estuaries and marine environments.

In 1969, the Atlantic County Board of County Commissioners (previously referred to as the Board of Chosen Freeholders) adopted the formation of the Atlantic County Sewerage Authority to develop a comprehensive approach to wastewater management. With the necessary state and federal funding secured, construction of the ACUA's Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility in Atlantic City commenced on October 23, 1975. The regional wastewater system began operation on September 18, 1978.

Atlantic County’s Treatment Process Today


ACUA treats the wastewater of 14 Atlantic County municipalities as well as sludge and septage generated throughout the state. Wastewater leaves homes and businesses and travels via pipes, conveyed by gravity, to the ACUA Wastewater Treatment Facility in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Pump stations are located throughout the County that lift wastewater back to street level when the pipes get too deep underground. Hundreds of pump stations and over 60 miles of force main pipelines make up the infrastructure that transports wastewater to the ACUA facility.

Before entering the facility, several bar screens remove large solids to protect pumps and other critical infrastructure. The screens catch wipes, rags and other items not meant for flushing. The extensive treatment process begins with primary clarifiers where flow is slowed to permit solids to settle at the bottom to be collected. The overflow from the primary clarifiers enters the aeration basins where dissolved solids are digested by microorganisms. The wastewater then enters the secondary clarifiers which help to produce a much higher quality outflow. Treated water is then disinfected with chlorine to kill leftover germs and the effluent pumping station discharges the clean water to the Atlantic Ocean via an ocean outfall pipe and diffuser system.

The quality of water is tested at ACUA’s on-site state certified water and wastewater environmental testing laboratory. Staff analyzes the water throughout the process to ensure the plant is meeting all environmental quality standards by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Agency.

Solids collected from wastewater is referred to as biosolids. The biosolids go into centrifuges that spin the waste around to remove as much water as possible. Next, the biosolids go into a multi-hearth incinerator, where the biosolids are burned, leaving only ash. Finally, the ash is taken to the landfill for safe disposal.

Wastewater Management Is Essential


While we take this essential service for granted, according to the CDC, 3.6 billion people in the world do not have access to a clean and safely managed toilet! Without safe wastewater infrastructure, human waste can contaminate communities’ food and water sources, increasing peoples’ chances of getting sick.

The ACUA is proud to provide residents with cleaner waterways through our waste management services. The Authority utilizes renewable energy to power the treatment process and continues to introduce new innovations and technologies to improve the process.

ACUA welcomes visitors to take a tour of the wastewater treatment facility. Residents and groups can schedule a tour online. We also host open house tours during the summertime.


Works Cited:

Lofrano, G. & Brown, J.  (2010) Wastewater Magament through the Ages: A history of Mankind. Science of the Total Environment, October 2010.