COULD BARRELS OF ALCOHOL POURED DOWN SEWERS IN 1919 HAVE AFFECTED THE ENVIRONMENT?

Prohibition-era photos are a treasure trove of straw hats and suited authorities emptying barrel after barrel of liquor into sewers outside of saloons and speakeasies. We wondered about problems that could have been caused as so much alcohol was hitting the drains.
  1. On January 19, 1919, prohibition became the law of the land.
    Following the ratification of the 18th amendment, there was a whole lotta alcohol that needed to be disposed of around the country, and photo archives show that authorities forced many breweries to drain their inventories. Literally.
  2. Could that much alcohol have an effect on the environment or treatment processes?
    Seeing the many classic archival images of liquor cascading down street drains, we asked our Environmental Services staff: "What impact—environmental or otherwise—would this much alcohol have if it entered our sewers all at the same time?"
  3. "It would have to be a very large spill" to have an impact.
    "With a system as large as ours," said Superintendent of Environmental Services Scott Broski, "it would have to be a very large spill" to have an impact on our treatment processes. "The potential [environmental] hazard in the collection system would probably be the bigger concern."
  4. Alcohol does have an effect on aquatic life.
    Regarding alcohol introduced to waterways in large doses: "It's toxic if introduced directly into their environment," said Wastewater Analyst Lindsey Vanesky. "The alcohol would work as an anesthetic [for fish and other organisms] and be lethal."
  5. The kind of sewers in a city would make a big difference.
    Introducing alcohol in these volumes, the more immediate concern would have been in separate-sewer communities where storm sewers discharge untreated directly into the environment. In combined-sewer areas like Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs, the stormwater and sanitary sewage flow in the same pipe, which means the combined flow would be diluted and treated at a wastewater treatment plant.
  6. While alcohol didn't cause a catastrophe, other decisions put water resources at risk.
    While we don't have records of if or how the 1920 alcoholic deluge actually affected the environment at the time, we can say many practices in place in the early 1900s put Cleveland's water resources in a precarious position, culminating with the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969.
  7. Raise a glass to high-quality clean water.
    Long after Prohibition was repealed and since the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, improvements have been made to treatment processes, sewer systems, and monitoring requirements to ensure our water is protected. Cheers to that.