The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Reference Collection Book Review: Bay Cities, Water Politics

During a year when much of Massachusetts is experiencing drought conditions and water use restrictions have become a reality in the lives of many in the Commonwealth, it is timely to consider what our regional history of water use and management has been. In the recently-acquired Bay Cities and Water Politics: The Battle for Resources in Boston & Oakland (University Press of Kansas, 1998), historian Sarah S. Elkind documents the political development of water use policies in two geographically and culturally divergent areas of the United States: eastern Massachusetts and the San Francisco bay area. Briefly surveying early water use policies in both the Boston area and the East Bay, Elkind focuses her historical narrative on the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when first-generation water systems began to strain under increasing demand and each region had to determine a way forward.

In Massachusetts, where clean water delivery and sewage disposal had long been framed as a public health concern, the political elite were able to build the case for a regional system that put water and sewage into the hands of state agencies. The voters supported the creation of “new institutions, controlled by engineers and bureaucrats...because they face pollution and water supply problems that their municipalities had repeatedly failed to solve” (114). On the East Bay, meanwhile, water resources became a struggle over private versus publicly-held water supplies as powerful commercial interests resisted attempts to establish publicly-controlled regional deep into the twentieth century.

In both regions, Elkind argues, “rural activities and economies were sacrificed for urban prosperity in spite of the continued nostalgia for America’s rural past” (155). While each region developed temporary solutions to both water supply and waste disposal, these systems remained vulnerable to increased demand for clean water and the growing environmental burden of pollution. Regionalism, Elkind argues, was a Progressive-era solution to challenge of water resource management. By creating infrastructure somewhat immune to the local politics of individual city or corporate interests, regional solutions created water systems that provided clean water to citizens and removed waste. However, regional technologies “ultimately impaired the ability of...natural systems to absorb the byproducts of modern industrial life” (171). By the late twentieth century, regional entities came under harsh criticism from citizen activists in both Massachusetts and California as water battles took center stage in regional politics once again.

For a book on water politics, Bay Cities and Water Politics is a fairly dry read. Elkind relies on government records, the personal papers of key figures, newspapers, pamphlets, and other print materials to construct her history. Readers unfamiliar with the individuals, municipal agencies, and corporations involved may get lost in the play-by-play accounting of regional politics at work. Nonetheless, the title will be an essential resource for anyone needing background on Progressive era water and sewage politics in Boston. It complements the work done by Carl Smith in City Water, City Life (University of Chicago Press, 2013) documenting water supply politics in Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago before the Civil War.


Related Collections:

Boston & Roxbury Mill Corporation records, 1794-1912. 

Elizabeth S. Houghton papers, 1916-1999; bulk: 1955-1999.

Allen H. Morgan papers, 1923-1990.

Lemuel Shattuck papers,1676-1909; bulk: 1805-1867.

Quincy family papers (1665-1852) in the Quincy, Wendell, Holmes, and Upham Family Papers, microfilm edition.


permalink | Published: Friday, 9 September, 2016, 12:00 AM