Research Spotlight: Professor gives the down and dirty on history of sewage in Williamstown

Though most Williams students take for granted the (mostly) modern dorms and facilities that we live and work in, with a history dating back to the 1790s, the College had a decidedly more rustic feel until more modern times. This is especially true of the College’s sewer system – the history of which goes back to 1880.

Rosenburg Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology Henry Art studies the history of the College’s sewer system. Prior to 1881, virtually no one in the Williamstown area had indoor plumbing. Most people collected their waste and disposed of it in an outhouse near one of the rivers. Before the advent of modern drilling technology, these rivers – along with shallow wells – were the main source of the College’s drinking water. In the 1850s, Williamstown began laying water lines, which allowed Morgan, built in 1881, to be the first building on campus with indoor plumbing. The building used running water from Cole Spring, and the sewage from the building went out into a cesspool near what is currently Spring Street. Williamstown only began laying sewage pipes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These sewage pipes ran into  three different rivers: Hemlock Brook, the Green River and the Hoosic River.

However, by the 1950s, all the sewage being produced by both the College and the remainder of Williamstown ran untreated into the Hoosic River. In 1971, the Hoosic Water Quality District was opened; its advent came in the wake of the 1972 Local and Federal Clean Water Act that banned individuals and companies from dumping sewage straight into rivers without being treated. The Hoosic Water Quality District is the same sewage treatment plant we still use today in the College and in Williamstown.

“This system at the Hoosic Water Quality District works well except for during floods like Hurricane Irene and when situations like infiltration occur,” Art said. Infiltration, a prevalent issue for many sewage treatment facilities, is when sewage pipes leak and groundwater enters pipes. During Hurricane Irene, water levels rose well above the sewage treatment plant’s pumps, but luckily the hurricane left the actual facility sitting dry on an island surrounded by floodwater.

The College itself has had various sewage issues as well. Before the days of Greylock Quad, there used to be a hotel, aptly named Greylock Hotel, in the quad’s current location. For the comfort of the guests, the hotel owners and managers decided to create a pipeline to transport the sewage into Hemlock Brook. They did not want odor and sewage problems inside the hotel; thus, they disposed of sewage by streamlining it into the river in order to reduce odor issues. Art described another one of the most pressing sewage issues the College had ever faced: “In the 1980s, the sewer line from Mission Park, the one that intercepts with the large, six-foot diameter line for the town, broke,” Art said. “For one day, raw sewage was leaking into Ephs Pond and the school had to close the plumbing for a day to make the necessary repairs.” According to Art, the College took no action in order to fix the damage done to Ephs Pond. “We did nothing,” he explained. “We simply left the pond how it was to let biological processes and nature take care of the issue. And when we came back after summer, the pond was back to normal.”

While the sewage leak was a major issue, the College moved in a positive direction in terms of dealing with sewage in that same decade. In the ’80s, the Hoosic Water Quality District also opened a composting facility. “The compost from leftover sewage is mixed with woodchips and sold,” Art said. “It can be and is used for golf courses and fields, but while I don’t think it can be used for vegetable gardens yet, it is an efficient was to renew resources.” Beyond simply dealing with the transportation of sewage to appropriate facilities, the College is also concerned with the costs of water and waste management. “The cost of sewage is directly linked to your water bill,” Art said. “Essentially, sewage treatment facilities read your water meters and charge you based on your water usage.  However, they charge about 175 percent of the price of clean water in order to treat the sewage. So if you leave a tap running, the College pays not only for the water coming in but 175 percent for the water going out.”

In addition, sewage treatment is self-sustaining and therefore cannot be funded by taxes.  Sewage facilities can only charge the consumers for treatment of their sewage, so the burden of paying for students’ water consumption falls wholly on the College. The current sewage facilities in Williamstown are successful and efficient, according to Art; there was an expansion of the facility 10 years ago in order to adjust to the changing state standards, which are often revised. Thus, the sewage scene at the College is constantly changing and adapting to new laws and social standards. The College has seen a number of issues with sewage management over the past few centuries; however, improvements in technology have allowed the campus to deal with those issues and move forward.