Van Atta Dam is visible above the falls. The old city reservoir is behind it. Some illegal swimmers can be seen in the foreground.

Sometime in December of this year, the City of Ithaca will complete the largest public-works undertaking in its history: major renovations to the city’s water supply infrastructure. The $37.5 million water supply project is the result of a years-long debate about whether to rebuild the existing, century-old water plant to meet modern water quality standards, or join the inter-municipal water consortium Bolton Point, which draws its water from Cayuga Lake. In October 2009 the Common Council voted to rebuild and retain control of its water supply from a reservoir on Six Mile Creek, and the wheels of municipal government began to turn and the water supply project was underway. 

Even in a drought year like 2016, all of our clouds and normally frequent precipitation mean that Ithaca has an embarrassment of fresh water riches of which other, drier cities can only dream. Still, safely delivering over 3 million gallons of water a day to 30,000 customers is no mean feat, and in light of recent local controversies regarding lead and discolored municipal water, we could learn from a look back at the history of our water supply. It’s a story charged with the often-competing interests of money, politics, science and public health.


The Early Years 

Water has never been scarce in Ithaca. Fall, Cascadilla, Six Mile, Buttermilk creeks and the Cayuga Inlet all come together here. When Europeans first settled the floor of the valley in the very early 1800s, it was mottled with swamps and prone to at least annual flooding. Filling in ‘low’ areas, even downtown, continued well into the 20th century, and the water table is still normally relatively high, even in a dry year like 2016. 

As the population grew in those first decades of the 19th century, individual wells were the water source for all homes and businesses. While easy access to a high water table was a boon to residents, contamination was often a problem. This was a time before sewers, when homes and businesses used outhouses and cesspools in various states of repair and saturation. Human residents also shared their property with hundreds of horses and, often, livestock animals such as chickens, goats and pigs. During rainy periods, bacterial diseases, especially cholera and typhoid, were common.

By 1849 the population had reached 4,900. Village trustees, at the urging of the village board of health, gave Henry W. Sage, lumber tycoon and local benefactor, permission to install a water system as a private enterprise. In 1853 Sage and other prominent local investors formed the Ithaca Light and Water Company and went into the business of selling water. The company tapped into springs on East Buffalo Street and created a 30-foot deep pond there as a reservoir from which the water was piped down to the flats. 

This arrangement served well enough for the next twenty years, but as the population increased during that period to over 8,400 and in the wake of the Fire of 1871, it was found to be inadequate. In 1875 the company built a dam in Buttermilk Gorge. Water was carried by means of a flume from the gorge along the current Route 96B to a million-gallon reservoir located on South Hill about where the Morse Chain/Emerson buildings are now. 

In addition, the village built a sort of rickety and unreliable system of gravity-fed cisterns and hydrants, drawing water from Cascadilla and Six Mile Creeks, that were set up throughout downtown to address the constant threat of fire, as almost all of Ithaca’s buildings were made of wood. 

The water system was becoming more elaborate. Sanitation practices did not improve much as the population grew, though, and regular bouts of typhoid and cholera remained a nagging problem.

In fact, it was not until the latter half of the 19th century that a direct connection between polluted water and recurring outbreaks of disease was made. This marks the shift in scientific thinking from the ‘miasma’, or environmental, theory of disease, in which diseases were supposed to have been caused by concentrations of poisonous air, to the ‘germ’ theory, which proposed that many diseases were caused by microorganisms. There began to be pressure in Ithaca for some kind of water treatment as germ theory gained favor. As early as the 1870s, there were arguments for cleaning or filtering the water, backed by Cornell scientists, but a vocal minority of citizens consistently stalled such improvements on the basis of cost. Even as the supply infrastructure became more complex and extensive, water being delivered to Ithaca residents was completely untreated throughout the 1800s.

In 1888 Ithaca became a city, and with the population passing 10,000, it was enjoying rapid civic improvement. Though still mostly confined to the area between Six Mile Creek, Farm Street, the Inlet and East Hill/Cornell, the 1890s saw a city with streetlights, telephones and streetcars. Downtown streets were being paved. There were daily trains to New York City. Ice cream sundaes were being invented. In 1892 the water company acquired the Van Natta Dam near Water and Giles streets on Six Mile Creek and created a larger reservoir to meet increasing demand. A year later, a pump station was built at the dam. However, as modern as Ithaca was becoming, development was uneven. The improvements, including the water supply system, were focused on the wealthier and middle-class sections on the city, leaving the poorer neighborhoods, particularly the low-lying area near the Inlet known as ‘the Rhine.’ behind.

And the water was still untreated. Typhoid, along with malaria, sometimes referred to as “Ithaca fever,” was a perennial problem. Civic boosters and city officials routinely downplayed the threat in an effort to encourage development. Yet, every rain flushed refuse from farms and outhouses into the Six Mile Creek reservoir. Following particularly bad typhoid episodes in 1892 and 1894, there was a great deal of finger-pointing in the newspapers. The germ theory, introduced to American public policy by Trumansburg native, Cornell graduate, and eventual state commissioner of public health Hermann Biggs, had by then gained wide acceptance in the scientific community. Still, cost was always cited as an issue, and nothing was done. The water continued to be delivered, without treatment, directly from the reservoir.

To compound the public health problems, Ithaca had no sewer system until the turn of the 20th century. The first 217 houses were hooked up in September 1896, but the system spread slowly and unevenly in the years that followed. Raw sewage was pumped directly into Cascadilla Creek and Cayuga Lake until 1908, when sewage treatment was started. Even then, sewage treatment as we think of it was not put in place until decades later.


The Typhoid Epidemic of 1903

The turning point came after what was arguably the greatest public health disaster in Ithaca’s history. Starting in January 1903, a rapidly-spreading typhoid epidemic moved through the city. At first the city health officer denied the existence of the epidemic, but within weeks hundreds of people had become infected, and it had become too large to ignore. By March over 750 cases had been reported, and there were probably many people who simply went about their business without being officially deemed sick.

Public arguments ensued about the source of the disease, reaching even the august pages of the New York Times. The water company and municipal authorities were excoriated for ignoring scientific opinion and past indices of danger. Immigrant “Italian workers” constructing dam improvements on the water system were blamed. The Ithaca Water Company was denounced as a “corrupt big business” and a citizens committee was formed. 

After a plea for help to the state department of health, Dr. George Soper was called to Ithaca from New York City. An engineer with a doctorate in sanitary science and public health from Columbia University, Dr. Soper would later become famous for identifying Typhoid Mary as a symptom-free carrier of typhoid. Under his supervision, 400 of the city’s 1,300 private wells were condemned, and 1,300 privies were cleaned out (with the contents spread over open land outside city limits). 522 homes were quarantined and long-neglected sanitary laws were enforced. Most households were still not connected to the sewer system, but the epidemic abated and, generally, Ithaca became a cleaner city.

Ultimately, over 1,400 cases of typhoid were confirmed, with at least 82 deaths, in a population of 13,000. In June 1903, reportedly distraught over his daughter’s death in the epidemic, renowned saloonkeeper Theodore Zinck drowned himself in Cayuga Lake. The poorer district near the Inlet, containing 36 percent of the city’s wells and 46 percent of the city’s privies, contracted 41 percent of the typhoid cases. Even with Dr. Soper’s reforms, typhoid lingered for years before disappearing, as the sewer system slowly improved and swamps near the city were eliminated. The water company’s role was never conclusively established, but in the shadow of the epidemic, the pressure for the city to take over the private water system became insurmountable. It took a year of haggling and litigation, but the City of Ithaca purchased the waterworks for $658,000 in 1904. It was now a public utility.


Keeping Up With the Science

After the city bought the private facility, the Buttermilk Creek supply was shut down and Six Mile Creek become the sole source of the city’s water. Treatment improvements were quick in coming. At first, the focus was on removing bacterial, rather than industrial contamination. A sand filtration system and sedimentation basins were built at the reservoir site in less than six months. Originally designed to reduce turbidity (cloudiness) and odor, sand filtration was also found to reduce microbial quality. In 1905, water metering was put in place. By 1907, chlorination started. 

What followed through the twentieth century was a series of technological improvements as the science of water treatment progressed. Major upgrades occurred in the 1930s, funded in part by WPA money, and in 1951, when the plant was enlarged and updated to increase capacity. 

Though there are no hard statistics for Ithaca proper, a well-known 2005 study by David Cutler and Grant Miller concluded that clean water technologies, filtration and chlorination, were responsible for close to half of the total mortality reduction in American cities between 1900 and 1936, and the near-eradication of typhoid fever.



The city currently uses a six-step process, including chlorination before and after, coagulation and flocculation (causing impurities to form heavier particles), sedimentation (causing those particles to settle out of the water) and filtration. The water still comes from a reservoir in Six Mile Creek, supplied by a 46 square-mile forested watershed, but the current water supply project is designed to overhaul a system that was very tired. 

The city reservoir behind Third Dam (also called “the 60-Foot Dam) is just north of Burns Road in the town of Ithaca between Coddington Road and Route 79. It has lost approximately 60 percent of its capacity due to a buildup of silt since the dam’s completion in 1911. Most of the drain valves had rusted shut, making silt removal difficult. Much of the treatment facilities dated back to the 1951 upgrades and some of the sedimentation basins had been in use since 1904. 

Over the years, as the legal standards have been raised for clean water, the water treatment plant has had to continually improve its technology. Now an entirely new treatment plant is nearly finished. The water supply project aims to comprehensively modernize the water supply infrastructure so that it can address the city’s needs in decades to come. A task of this scale is not cheap, of course. The project is funded mainly through issuing municipal bonds. The effect on water bills will be phased in over the next couple of years, and it’s likely that water bills in Ithaca will eventually be double their current rate.

The cost of infrastructure improvements, control over the municipal water supply and meeting statutory requirements are not new issues. We’re certainly looking at more expensive water in the future, but it bears remembering that until recently most of us rarely gave a thought to the safety or reliability of the water when we turned on the tap. It’s a luxury we in 21st-century Ithaca have been able to take for granted.  §

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

This is a space for civil feedback and conversation. A few guidelines: 1. be kind and courteous. 2. no hate speech or bullying. 3. no promotions or spam. If necessary, we will ban members who do not abide by these standards.