The tragedy unfolding in Flint, Mich., reminds us that health care is not just a transaction between an individual doctor and their patient. The health of a community depends on sound, effectively implemented, public policy. 

In no field has the investment in public health paid greater dividends than in the application of evolving sciences to the treatment of water. Every day, multiple times, we turn on the tap and expect that the water that flows out is drinkable and safe. Historically, that was not true; it was always safer to drink beer or wine than water. And even today, nearly 6.63 million people around the world have no access to safe water.

Drinking water in a modern urban society is not a naturally occurring element. It is a manufactured product. 

Cincinnatians had no water “system” until 1817 when the City granted a 99-year contract for “the exclusive privilege of conveying water” to the Cincinnati Manufacturing Company, which immediately sold those rights to Samuel Davis. That company drew the first water from the Ohio River in 1821 with a horse-powered pump. Three years later it upgraded by retrofitting the 40-horsepower steam engine from the “Vesta,” the first steamboat built locally. With steam power Davis could pump 1.2 million gallons a day, but almost 50 percent of what he pumped leaked out of the hollowed out 12-foot log pipes that conveyed the water through the city. 

Limited capacity plagued the early system until the city finally purchased Nicholas Longworth’s “Garden of Eden” as the site for a large reservoir. Public resistance to spending $1.66 million for a stone reservoir ended abruptly when fire leveled Chicago in 1871. Over the next 16 years, workmen completed two massive basins capable of holding 100 million gallons. 

Ultimately, the capacity issue was simple compared to the quality issue. In the 1880s scientists began postulating that disease was caused by microscopic organisms popularly referred to as “germs”—bacteria and viruses. Just as scientific theories about global warming were rejected in the 1990s, some people, faced with spending $10 million for a new water filtration plant, dismissed the germ theory. In the 1890s the Cincinnati Enquirer ran articles headlined “Water Pollution Germ Theory Dying Out” and “Ohio River Water is as Pure as Heaven’s Snow,” but with 32 sewers dumping raw waste into the river above the water plant, popular demand grew for a new water facility.

Construction began in 1897 on a new complex upstream in the Village of California. The intake pier was built in a deep channel on the Kentucky side to guarantee a steady supply during droughts. Engineers built pumping stations, settling and coagulating basins and the filtration facility across 325 acres on the Ohio bank. 

The critical element was the filtration building containing 28 rapid sand filters, a system designed to handle the heavily silted water of the Ohio River. The California complex went on line in 1907 and the payoff was immediately measurable. 

Whereas 1,940 Cincinnatians contracted typhoid and 239 died from the disease in 1906, by 1908 only 234 cases and 64 deaths were recorded, most of those traceable to contaminated milk supplies, raw fruits and vegetables, or use of unfiltered water. Over the decades Water Works officials continued to perfect their product focusing on improving taste, odor and softness of the water.

In the mid-20th century the most important developments in water quality came from two branches of innovation. Regionally, this innovation was the creation of ORSANCO (Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission), an eight-state pact dedicated to eliminating the dumping of untreated human and industrial waste in the Ohio River and its tributaries in the 10-state drainage basin. And after the 1977 carbon tetrachloride spill at Industry, W.Va., ORSANCO also created an “organics detection system” to monitor and warn of industrial spills. 

Locally, the completion of the Richard Miller Treatment Plant in 1992 introduced the use of granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration to remove more organics after rapid-sand filtration, making Cincinnati the first city in the world to filter its water through activated carbon on a daily basis, not just during water emergencies. 

In October 2013 the system added an Ultraviolet (UV) Disinfection Treatment Facility. This treatment had its roots in a 1993 outbreak of Cryptosporidium in Milwaukee, Wis. that impacted 400,000 people, many of whom were hospitalized, and several died. UV disinfection uses low doses of UV light, to inactivate disease-causing microorganisms such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia without adding any chemicals to the water. 

Flint reminds us of the importance of public health initiatives. The failure to constantly improve something as basic as water, not only threatens individual lives, but the viability of a community. 

The predictable supply of plentiful water is one of our region’s greatest assets when compared to the water-starved regions of the Southwest. The long history of the GCWW as a leader in water quality, not only enhances the lives of residents, but also provides a great marketing tool for those recruiting new employees and businesses to the region.