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Column: Thankful for toilets that flush

Today, people wade in the river where raw sewage once flowed. Photo courtesy of the Washington Conservation District

Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water. Contact her at 651-330-8220, ext. 35, or angie.hong@mnwcd.org.

'Tis the season for gratitude, and this Thanksgiving I'm counting flushing toilets among my many blessings in life. What did people do before toilets were invented? Well, depending on where they lived, they either walked outside to use the outhouse in the freezing cold or did their business in a chamber pot and then dumped it in the street the next day. Consider using that approach this Thanksgiving!

Poor sanitation caused raging outbreaks of disease, especially in urban areas. Cholera outbreaks in London killed 14,137 people in 1849 and 10,738 in 1853-54. In Minneapolis, people first began to pump drinking water from the Mississippi River in 1881 and 1885 while it was still a dumping ground for human sewage, garbage and carcasses from the local slaughterhouses.

For nearly 30 years, people continued to drink contaminated river water, resulting in outbreaks of typhoid and cholera that killed hundreds every year. Eventually, in 1910, Minneapolis started treating its drinking water with chlorine and within a year, both diseases were virtually eliminated. St. Paul followed suit, although not until 1920.

Though chlorine helped to stop the spread of diseases, the stench of human waste still filled the rivers and streets in many urban areas. American journalist H. L. Mencken remarked that Baltimore "smelled like a billion polecats" and Mississippi National River and Recreation Area Superintendent John Anfinson estimated that there was one gallon of raw sewage for every 5.8 gallons of water in the Mississippi River as it flowed through the Twin Cities metro. When researchers surveyed a 42-mile stretch of the river between Minneapolis and Hastings in 1926, they found only three living fish; the river was a septic tank.

Finally, in 1938, the Twin Cities built its first wastewater treatment plant on the Mississippi River and river water quality began to slowly improve. During the next 30 years, dozens of local, decentralized treatment plants were built around the metro area to serve growing suburban communities. Unfortunately, many of these smaller plants caused severe water quality deterioration in the lakes and streams where they were located. So, the Minnesota Legislature created the Metropolitan Council in 1967, followed by the Metropolitan Sewer Board in 1969. Thus began a 40-year process of consolidating 33 wastewater treatment plants into eight large plants, equipped with state-of-the-art technology to clean and treat wastewater from 109 communities and more than 2.7 million people.

In addition to providing centralized wastewater treatment for the Twin Cities metro area, Met Council also worked with Minneapolis and St. Paul to separate the stormwater and wastewater systems so that untreated sewage no longer overflowed into the Mississippi River during large rain storms. The Twin Cities is the only large city in the United States that has successfully completed this process and it has saved the area millions of dollars in regulatory compliance and reporting. As a result, our retail sewer rate is one of the lowest in the nation and Mississippi River water quality has improved significantly.

Today, water flowing out of Twin Cities metro-area wastewater treatment plants is considered clean enough to drink. The eight plants have reduced the amount of phosphorus discharge to the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers by 88 percent since 2000. Dissolved oxygen concentrations measured in the Mississippi River at Grey Cloud Island have met water quality standards since 1978, and bacteria counts are low as well. The Mississippi is once again a river of life. Mayflies returned in 1987 after 30-years of absence, bald eagles nest along its shores, and a new fish survey conducted in 2008 found 30 species of fish living in the river.

Unfortunately, though wastewater treatment has improved dramatically in the United States, the World Health Organization estimates that 2.5 billion people still lack access to improved sanitation. For example, I've flushed a toilet in an otherwise pristine tropical paradise and watched the bottom open up to drop straight into the ocean below. In other places, there are sanitary systems but without the niceties that most of us take for granted. Instead, you find toilets without seats or simple holes in the floor to balance and hover over.

Like me, you might be surprised to learn that Nov. 19 was "World Toilet Day." This awareness-raising event is sponsored by eight worldwide organizations, including United Nations Water, World Health Organization and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. The goal is to bring safe sanitation to people around the world so that by 2030, everyone can enjoy the good health and cleaner water we've come to take for granted in Minnesota.

Count your blessings this holiday season, whether for roofs to keep the snow out, plentiful food to eat, or family to gather round the table. Last but not least, say thanks for the toilets in your home — shiny, odorless and clean.