City of Saginaw, Michigan


Excerpts from "Water Supply"

75 AD to 1975 AD

So inspired by the Water Supply of the City of Rome. over which he had been appointed "curator aquarum," in 97 A.D., that Sextus Julius Frontinus said-

"Will anybody compare the idle pyramids, or those other useless, though much renowned works of the Greeks, with these aqueducts; with these many indispensable structures?"

The Romans were 'practical' engineers. They built their awe-inspiring aqueducts with little conscious application of engineering principles, which resulted in some inefficiencies. Frontinus was one of the first to try to measure water flow, and to record from his experience, some basic hydraulic data. When one considers that not even the chemical or physical nature of water was understood at that time, the building of successful aqueducts was all the more remarkable.

The greatness of the Roman aqueducts lies mainly in the fact that they were built by hand. The Saginaw-Midland Water Supply System on the other hand, is a fine example of modern technology. The Lake Huron intake, pumps, and transmission lines are all specifically designed to operate at optimum efficiency while producing desired flows and pressures, regardless of gravitational influences.

Sextus Julius Frontinus was born in Sicily just a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The Apostles Peter and Paul were stoned to death by order of Emperor Nero when Frontinus was a young man. Frontinus himself was governor of the Roman Province of Britain in 76 A.D.: a post held a few years earlier in the Province of Judea by Pontius Pilate. Frontinus' writings are thus older than the New Testament of the Christian Bible.

Having studied at the Alexandria School of Mathematics, Frontinus gained recognition for his engineering treatise "Metes and Bounds." He was called to Rome by Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus, and appointed Praetor Urbanus in 71 A.D. This was a high and honorable office and gave its holder both judicial and executive powers. He became Consul Suffectus in 74 A.D., and continued his rise in responsibility to be appointed Water Superintendent of the City of Rome, which was the great Capital City of the vast Empire. Shortly after this appointment, Frontinus commenced the first book of DeAquis Urbin Romae, as follows:

"Inasmuch as every office conferred by the emperor demands especial attention; and inasmuch as I am moved not only to devote diligence, but even love to any matter confided to my care, be it on account of inborn zeal, or by reason of faithfulness in office; and inasmuch as Nerva Augustus, an emperor of whom it is difficult to say whether he devotes more love or more diligence to the common weal, has now conferred upon me the duties of water commissioner, (curator aquarum), duties contributing partly to the convenience, partly to the health, even to the safety of the city, and from olden time exercised by the most distinguished citizens; I therefore consider it to be the first and most important thing to be done, as has always been one of my fundamental principles in other affairs, to learn thoroughly what it is that I have undertaken."

The Roman water supply was 400 years old in 97 A.D. It had been enlarged over these four centuries, and served 1.2 million people when Frontinus took charge of it.

While public health ,was a consideration in building ancient water supplies, nothing was known about bacteria or the causes of disease. "Public health" simply meant physical cleanliness, which even in modern enlightened times has proven the best deterrent to bacterial infection and subsequent disease. Modern man has a more comprehensive knowledge of biology. He has learned to "disinfect" his water supplies in a treatment process which kills bacteria with chlorine or ozone. It is interesting to note, however, that over 1,800 years elapsed after Frontinus' time before disinfection of water supplies became a uniform practice.

To keep their water pure, the Romans concentrated their efforts on keeping their raw water sources clean. Bathing in, or polluting streams or springs was considered a contemptible act, and fines were levied against persons who did so. The industrial 'revolution' however, not only created many jobs, but many waste products as well, and disposal of these into nearby streams became a necessity if the cost of items produced were to be within that which citizens could afford. By 1950 A.D., people became concerned with this stream pollution and laws were enacted to require all waste products to be adequately purified before disposal in streams.

The Great Lakes, from which Saginaw gets its water, make up the largest body of fresh water on the earth. Among the world's largest fresh-water lakes, Lake Huron is still among the cleanest, probably varying in quality just slightly from the time when only the wind and Indian canoes rippled its clear waters.

The force of gravity caused water to flow in the aqueducts. In countries or areas where water sources are not elevated in hills or mountains above the points of use, water must be forced by other means. The industrial age requires great quantities of water, and pumps are utilized in the transmission of water over long distances, and up into tall buildings. Quantity and pressure have to be adequate to fill the needs of industrial, commercial, and residential users, and for firefighting.

The City of Saginaw is divided by the Saginaw River. The City was formerly two cities; Saginaw City on the west bank and East Saginaw on the east bank. In 1873, an Ordinance of the City of East Saginaw established some rules and regulations of a Board of Water Commissioners. The ordinance provided that:

"It shall be the duty of said Commission to examine and consider all matters relative to supplying the City of East Saginaw with a sufficient quantity of pure and wholesome water for the use and convenience of all the inhabitants of said City, to be obtained from the Tittabawassee River. ..and to construct a Water Works as to provide for an ample supply to protect said City against fire, and for other public or sanitary purposes, as the best interest of said City and its inhabitants may seem to require."

The present city water and wastewater systems are administered as a City Department. The raw water system, which is jointly owned with the City of Midland, is administered by a Board of Water Commissioners.

Saginaw City, on the west bank of the river operated a pumping station at the foot of Hancock Street. The East Saginaw Water Works was located at the present site of the Naval Reserve Armory. Huge steam operated pumps pumped untreated river water directly into the two separate distribution systems.

The demands of public health brought about a change in 1929 A.D., which resulted in the modern water purification and pumping plant located in Rust Park. The filtration and disinfection of water in this plant completely eliminated incidents of typhoid fever, dysentery and other water borne diseases. Major credit for 'selling' the concept of this water treatment plant to Saginaw citizens was given to school children. Their efforts are recognized by a large bronze plaque over the main entrance, which reads: "In gratitude to the school children of Saginaw who worked loyally to make this great project a reality."

In 1948 A.D., a new pipeline from Whitestone Point started operation. This great system delivers fresh, cold Lake Huron Water to the Rust Park purification plant. This plant, and several remote installations, assure Saginaw citizens a continuous supply of sparkling clear, cold water at their homes.

Pumps and meters are inventions of the industrial age. While pumps require electrical energy for operation, the meters allow the cost to be equitably divided among the water users. Another modern innovation is the elevated water storage tank. Water is pumped into these tanks during the nighttime, to be available during the day to supplement the work of the pumps. The tanks thus store energy as well as water. While the City of Saginaw does not use elevated water tanks because of adequate pumping capacity, many of the neighboring townships served by the Saginaw water supply do operate such tanks in their local systems. Factories also use elevated tanks to assist their operations and to provide additional fire protection. The tanks can be seen dotting the landscape in many urban and suburban areas.

Aqueducts were lined to make them reasonably water tight. The lining was usually a form of plaster or clay, but sometimes lead sheets were used. Lead was also used by the Romans for water pipe, as was stone and terra cotta (baked tile).

Modern aqueducts and large water transmission lines are made of reinforced concrete. Terra cotta is now used only for drain lines. Cast iron, coated (galvanized) steel, cement-asbestos, copper, brass, and plastic pipes are also used in modern water systems.

Wooden pipe was used in many early American water systems, including Saginaw's. Some pipe was simply made of square pine timbers with a hole bored through its center lengthwise. Wooden pipe in use about 1900 A.D., was rounded on the exterior and reinforced with a band of wrought iron spiraled around its entire length. The iron band gave the pipe an ability to withstand pressures up to 100 pounds per square inch. Some of this round pipe was made with staves (like a barrel), and some was bored out of solid rounded logs. The pipe was also available lined with tin to make it more watertight and less subject to internal erosion. The tin-lined pipe was more commonly used for hot water lines. Wooden pipe is no longer used, because of a scarcity of suitable soft, straight local timber that was once so plentiful in the Saginaw Valley, and the availability of more durable materials.

Your City's water supply is operated by professional, certified personnel, whose training far exceeds that of Frontinus. The engineering and planning skills that resulted in both potable water supply and good waste water disposal in Saginaw, rival and surpass the Romans' in that unprecedented period of power in their history, during which Sextus Julius Frontinus was Superintendent of Water Supply for the City of Rome.