Going sewer fishing in Katy, Texas

You may not be able to find alligators in the New York City sewers but one teenager has caught numerous fish in the storm sewer in Katy, Texas:

A teenager in Katy, Texas, has one of the most unique—and oddest—fishing holes you’ll ever see and it’s located just off the sidewalk near his house. Kyle Naegeli, 16, goes sewer fishing through the holes of the storm drain manhole cover. Certainly it’s the craziest-type fishing we’ve ever encountered.

Naegeli baits a hook, puts it through a hole in the manhole cover, and drops it down into the water of the storm sewer below. A cork attacked to the line above prevents losing the line. Then he waits…

“In the past four years I’ve caught hundreds of fish in the sewer with the biggest being a 3-pound bullhead. Only three bass have been caught because I’m using hotdogs and not live bait (which I will do sometime).”

So, where do fish come from? The storm drain empties into a nearby pond and the fish swim up the sewer system, providing one very unusual fishing hole.

A reasonable explanation for this oddity. Some of the American suburban sprawl of recent decades likely includes large storm sewers, especially in areas that get heavy rains. Yet, I would guess this could be done in other places as well though it requires someone to try to go fishing in the sewer before we would find out. Not too surprising a teenager figured this out…

Who knows what lurks in sewer and storm sewers? I’ve always been intrigued by such settings, particularly in large cities. TV shows and films regularly make use of large sewer tunnels as scenes for chases and shootouts. But, there are older roots than that. Victor Hugo devotes a long section toward the end of Les Miserables discussing the Paris sewers and then describing the action of the main characters under the streets. Alas, Snopes did find stories of alligators in the New York City region over the decades but only one involving an alligator in the sewer.

Turning the reversal of the Chicago River into a jazz symphony

The Chicago Tribune explains how a new jazz symphony based on the reversal of the Chicago River came about:

That story has been told in history books and classroom lectures, but now it’s coming to life in a novel way: a jazz symphony composed by Chicagoan Orbert Davis and inspired by the revelatory photo book “The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond” (CityFiles Press). In effect, Chicago history will be told here not by academics but by writers and musicians.

Co-authors Richard Cahan and Michael Williams spent years unearthing 21,834 forgotten photographs documenting in luminous black and white the reversal of the river — and its triumphant and disastrous effects on the world around it. Their 2011 book in turn has led trumpeter Davis to tell the tale in “The Chicago River,” a major opus he and his Chicago Jazz Philharmonic will perform in its world premiere Friday evening at Symphony Center, with historic photos projected on a screen.

Neither the coffee-table book nor the symphony would have happened, however, if the precious photos hadn’t been discovered more than a decade ago in the basement of the James C. Kirie Water Reclamation Plant in Des Plaines. The stench of decaying film negatives attracted workers’ attention and drew them to an even more precious find: 130 boxes of glass-plate negatives spanning 1894 to 1928, with written records accompanying them…

Not everyone, however, would hear jazz when studying these vivid images of a rougher, more rambunctious Chicago of more than a century ago. Jazz, however, stands as the ideal music for this time and place, because the turn of the previous century marked the explosive beginnings of jazz in Chicago. Jelly Roll Morton, the first jazz composer, came here from New Orleans as early as 1910, followed by Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong and a generation of New Orleans artists, making Chicago not only the next jazz capital but the exporter of the music to the rest of the world.

The work will be preformed this Friday. It sounds like a clever way to combine music, art, and history. These discovered photographs shed light on something that had only been written about before (see a recent summary here about how Chicago’s growth was fueled by excrement) but the music has the opportunity to add a new dimension.

The music is also a celebration of how a key infrastructure decision helped make Chicago what it is today. Many have heard the problems facing the city because the river flowed into Lake Michigan but what would have happened if the Chicago River hadn’t been reversed? How sustainable was the situation? What else could have been done at the time? People may not think much about sewers and water supplies but these are essential for large dense populations. In other words, you can’t be a global city without a decent sewer system.

Chicago’s explosive 19th century growth driven by excrement

Whet Moser argues Chicago’s remarkable growth from frontier town to big city was the result of excrement and new sewers:

The city was literally shaped by excrement. Its biggest single period of growth, the growth that turned Chicago into the Second City by population, came in the late 1800s, when the city’s sewer and sanitary systems were the envy of what were then suburbs. Lake View Township (the whole of the northeast side from North Avenue up to Rogers Park), Hyde Park Township (the south side between Pershing, State, and 138th), Lake Township (the southwest side bordered by Pershing, State, 87th, and Cicero) all latched on to the city when sophisticated sanitary systems were beyond the reach of booming townships, which were tightly restricted by the state’s limits on local debt.

Read on for more of the story of Chicago’s sewers.

This story in Chicago was not wholly unique. The late mid- to late-1800s were a period when numerous suburban communities outside big cities like Chicago, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were annexed into the city. This annexation was approved by suburban communities for several reasons. First, as Moser notes, sewers and other infrastructure improvements like water and electricity were too expensive for small communities. Second, these communities wanted to be part of the big city and the status that came with that.

Yet, the story changes quite a bit from the 1880s onward when suburban communities started rejecting annexation efforts from big cities. The price of the infrastructure improvements dropped, putting them within reach of smaller suburbs. Cities were growing so fast that they couldn’t keep up with social problems as well as infrastructure improvements, limiting the status appeal of being part of the big city. Finally, an idealism was developing among the suburbs themselves as places people wanted to move to in order to escape the big city. By the 1920s, annexations had basically stopped.

This was a major turning point for most Northeast and Midwest big cities. Once annexations stopped and suburbs decided to go on their own, the boundaries of big cities became fixed. Later, as wealth and jobs fled the city for the suburbs, there were few opportunities for Rust Belt cities to expand their boundaries. In contrast, cities in the South and West (the Sunbelt) have had different annexation histories and many are much bigger in land area.

Considering the effects of a “flush tax” in Maryland

Officials in Maryland are discussing a different way of finding revenue: raising the “flush tax.”

Maryland’s already got a flush tax, it runs about $2.50 a month for sewer customers, and $30 a year for homes on septic systems. The money raised goes to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Citing the continued damage to the watershed, Md. Governor Martin O’Malley told reporters he’d consider doubling or tripling the tax…

“Right now, there’s a flat flush tax, such that a senior citizen living in the 1600 block of North Avenue pays the same flush fee as a single person living in a giant McMansion.”…

“The Governor dropped a bomb last year in his State of the State address where he proposed banning developments of five or more homes on septic systems,” says Michael Harrison, Director of Government Affairs for the Homebuilder’s Association of Maryland. Harrison says such a ban wouldn’t hurt the big national builders, but local, small scale developers who work in rural areas.

This is not an uncommon situation: a government official suggests raising or enacting a new fee tied to growth and builders respond negatively. While I can understand how raising the fee might impact future building, it seems like it would be difficult to argue that bigger houses shouldn’t have to pay a higher “flush tax.” As the tax currently stands, it is more about paying a fee per lot of development rather than for the usage of the sewers.

The talk of septic systems in suburbia reminds me of the possible problems as laid out in Adam Rome’s book The Bulldozer in the Countryside. Despite the issues with septic systems, building sewers out to more rural areas can be quite expensive for smaller communities so septic systems can seem cheaper in the short-term.

Septic tanks and McMansions

A commentator in southern Maryland discusses how the construction of McMansions in more rural areas is related to septic tanks and social class:

Public sewer might have caught up to the suburbs, but now the suburbs are leapfrogging public sewer. Although it has been slowed by the national housing crisis, the trend has been toward rural ridge tops bristling with “McMansions” like plates on the spine of a stegosaurus. These homes have problems that transcend septic. They generally gobble up land 5 acres at a time, not to mention their associated energy and transportation inefficiencies. It is indeed hard to feel sorry for these developments when cracking down on septic systems.

But at the same time big and rich developments are being scrubbed, it would be a mistake to throw country people out with the wastewater. In rural counties, lawmakers have been merciless in their attacks on anti-septic proposals, which they view as a job killer and an assault on private property rights. One Frederick County, Md., delegate called the proposed Maryland ban the worst bill he’d seen in 25 years.

There is hyperbole involved, naturally, but the danger is that septic bans, if too harsh, could make country life unaffordable for people of limited means. That’s the economics of reduced supply. Land prices in many areas have already made it difficult for people raised in rural locations to stay there. It’s proper that all sources of pollution, including septic systems, be controlled. It’s also proper that country life be protected at. The goal should be inclusive of both ideals.

Sounds like a case of competing interests: being greener (and the story suggests that a quarter of the homes in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have septic tanks leading to a pollution issue) versus keeping more rural homes affordable.

This discussion reminds me of Adam Rome’s book The Bulldozer in the Countryside which addresses the history of septic tanks in suburbia. In the suburban boom after World War II, it was often cheaper for builders to include septic tanks as suburban communities struggled to provide sewers and sewage treatment plants. In my own research into the development of local suburbs, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that communities began to see the importance of sewers and treatment plants. Eventually, many communities found ways to help pass the costs on to developers and builders through sewer hook-up fees but these were originally contentious.