Ever since people first recognized that their health and well-being were related to the quality of their environment, they have applied thoughtful principles to attempt to improve the quality of their environment. The ancient Harappan civilization utilized early sewers in some cities. The Romans constructed aqueducts to prevent drought and to create a clean, healthful water supply for the metropolis of Rome. In the 15th century, Bavaria created laws restricting the development and degradation of alpine country that constituted the region's water supply.
The field emerged as a separate environmental discipline during the middle third of the 20th century in response to widespread public concern about water and pollution and increasingly extensive environmental quality degradation. However, its roots extend back to early efforts in
public health engineering. Modern environmental engineering began in London in the mid-19th century when Joseph Bazalgette designed the first major sewerage system that reduced the incidence of waterborne diseases such as cholera. The introduction of drinking water treatment and sewage treatment in industrialized countries reduced waterborne diseases from leading causes of death to rarities.
In many cases, as societies grew, actions that were intended to achieve benefits for those societies had longer-term impacts which reduced other environmental qualities. One example is the widespread application of DDT to control agricultural pests in the years following World War II. While the agricultural benefits were outstanding and crop yields increased dramatically, thus reducing world hunger substantially, and malaria was controlled better than it ever had been, numerous species were brought to the verge of extinction due to the impact of the DDT on their reproductive cycles. The story of DDT as vividly told in Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" is considered to be the birth of the modern environmental movement and the development of the modern field of "environmental engineering.
Conservation movements and laws restricting public actions that would harm the environment have been developed by various societies for millennia. Notable examples are the laws decreeing the construction of sewers in London and Paris in the 19th century and the creation of the U.S. national park system in the early 20th century.