The Pollution Experts: Engineers, Biologists, and the Problem of Water Quality in Rivers of the United States, 1935 to 1972

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Johns Hopkins University
In the 1930s, the New Deal created an opportunity for engineers in the United States to address river pollution as a national problem. Leaders in sanitary engineering, such as Abel Wolman, united the profession around the problem of river pollution, demonstrated their expertise by organizing a massive survey of the Ohio River Valley prior to the Second World War, and shaped postwar policy, such as the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. The act began a period of supportive federalism that influenced expert decision-making and collaboration until Congress passed the Water Pollution Control Act Amendments, or Clean Water Act, of 1972. Under the patronage of the Public Health Service, a multidisciplinary field of applied science emerged that was shaped by the authority of engineers. This dissertation explores how engineers defined the problem of river pollution and affected the roles played by other experts, notably biologists. While sanitary engineers were committed to advancing drinking water safety and waste treatment processes, their influence spanned well beyond the municipal and industrial treatment plants. I argue that engineers set expectations for the appropriate cost, time, division of technical labor, and research toolkit for managing river pollution across watersheds. They appropriated systems management techniques, prioritized quantitative definitions of water quality, and promoted physical and chemical over biological data. Together, engineers and biologists opened new possibilities for managing pollution by defining water quality criteria to protect aquatic life, developing instruments to continuously monitor rivers for pollution, and designing mathematical models to simplify policy decisions. Some biologists, notably the ecologist and diatom taxonomist Ruth Patrick, pushed the field to recognize biological data as central to measures of river pollution. This dissertation therefore suggests that our current definition of “water quality” stems from engineers’ and biologists’ tense yet productive debates over how to define, measure, and model river pollution. Their need to collaborate forced them to communicate, negotiate, and overcome conflicts and misunderstandings. Together, engineers and biologists shaped legal definitions of water pollution, as enshrined in the Clean Water Act and its goal to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”
Water Pollution Control in the United States, Water Quality, Rivers, Engineers, Biologists, New Deal Planning, Systems Management, Authority, Disciplines, Interdisciplinary Collaboration, U.S. Public Health Service, Technological Systems