During much of the City of Charleston’s early history, Charlestonians used privy vaults for to collect and dispose of human fecal waste. By the late 1800s, Charleston had approximately 10,000 privy vaults, of which only 10% were emptied in a given year. Drinking water cisterns were often located close to privy vaults, posing a serious health risk. Diseases like cholera were common problems.
In the late 1800s scientific advances made it clear that bacteria from fecal waste caused diseases like cholera. As a result, Charleston began constructing a sewage collection and disposal system. Work progressed in fits and starts and was finally completed in the 1940s. The system discharged untreated sewage from several outfall along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. By the late 1960s water quality had drastically declined making many local waterways unfit from swimming and shellfishing. In the early 1970s the federal Clean Water Act required all sewage be treated before discharge. The city’s Plum Island Treatment Plant was completed in 1971 and to this day discharges treated wastewater to the Ashley River. Learn more about the history of the Charleston Harbor watershed.