It’s the fifth day I’ve been home sick this week. It’s not entirely a bad thing, aside from feeling like the walking dead and speaking with a voice that caused my brother to ask me if I had been smoking for the past sixty-four years. Since there is no way I can deal with fourteen 4th graders I am excused for showing up at my current job as an outdoor education instructor and I can actually spend some time doing activities such as photo editing and writing that I can do without needing to speak, breath on anyone or move more than my fingers. I have also been able to pick up a book that I have been meaning to finish for about the past two years – Cadillac Desert, the quintessential book of the mismanagement of water in the West since the Mormons came traipsing across the land in search of God’s land. Since I have had a full time job and little time to do things, I am finding being sick rather enjoyable. When friends call me on the phone they comment that although they can barely hear me, I sound like the most joyful dreadfully sick person around.
I am also able to spend time in my basement dwelling – yes I have upgraded from the toolshed to a basement. The introvert in me is loving being sick. I rarely get full day at home lately, let alone DAYS. I’m getting to know my dwelling. Mostly this is good. I have realized I can’t fix my closet door - which is leaning inward, resting against my clothes. But I have been able to reason the logic of the light fixtures in the ceiling to replace three light bulbs that have been burned out for months.
However, I have become more acutely aware of some of the routines of the older couple residing in the house above my basement. They never leave. And they must stay really well hydrated. I know this because I have a loft bed which places my head less than three feet below the ceiling. My head placement and, much to my chagrin, their toilet placement are a bit too close for my comfort. I can hear every nuance of their streaming urine. Without a doubt I can tell you that trying to sleep in with regular peeing directly above your head is not a restful experience. In fact, it has become something of a pet peeve.
The peeing is always followed by the swoosh of the toilet flushing. As I obsessed about the unfortunate toilet placement, my mind started to wander to the flushing too. I began to hate the toilet flush almost as much as the peeing. I countered the irritation with my own harmless passive aggressive solution to see how hydrated I can keep my own body, even matching my peeing with theirs, but in protest - NOT flush the toilet (luckily I live alone…)
Interspersed between toilet flushes from above I read Cadillac Desert. I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to grope for words that describe how I feel when I read this book. Disgust, anger and guilt for living in the West all come to mind but don’t do the feelings justice. My obsession grew, thanks to the book, to wanting to know just how much water is flushed down the pipes above me in a day.
I found a website www.h2ouse.com to help me out. It states that 3.61 gallons are used per flush. 18.8 gallons is the daily capita use with an average of 5.17 flushes a day. These statistics do not come close to representing my upstairs neighbors. They wake around 6:00 AM to feed their 31 year-old pony Brandy, and go to sleep around 10:30 PM. On average the toilet flushes twice an hour, but to keep it consistent with my per capita statistics I will state an average of 1.2 flushes an hour during the day (sometimes there is a double flush). A few times during the night there is more travel to the toilet. Per capita we now have 21.6 flushes per day or 78 gallons per capita of water flushed down the toilet with an upstairs total of 156 gallons. (holy crap!!! As I write, this is the first time I had actually seen these figures.)
My first instinct was to become the environmental savior of the day and rip their toilet out and tell them to invest in a nice chamber pot. But instead I kept number crunching and discovered that if they only had a dual capacity flush toilet they may only use 66.6 gallons a day up there. During my recent trip to New Zealand I noticed that the majority of toilets I came across were dual capacity flush. And that is in a country that rains buckets of water and has very few people. If they can do it, can’t we in the West who, by water standards, shouldn’t even be here in the first place to flush toilets?
Most of the kids I work with, when I ask while sitting on the banks of the South Fork of the American River, have no idea where the water they use comes from. My most depressing answer is, ‘the gutter.’ I get this one almost every week. We are sitting by a river, kids, a river!
An average flow on the South Fork of the American River is 1,200 cubic feet per second (CFS). There is a rock named Gunsight in the middle of a rapid named Troublemaker directly upstream from where I sit with the kids. At this flow the top of the rock is not yet covered. In a long glance that equates to 2,487 toilet flushes passing the rock. It would take my upstairs neighbors 57.6 days to flush the flow of water past Gunsight. Sounds insignificant. But that’s two people. My town of Nevada City has approximately 3,000 residents. If everyone flushed like upstairs (daily flushings compressed to one moment of time) Gunsight would not only be covered, but the river would be in full flood stage with 31,271 CFS crashing over it. If all Nevada City residents flushed a toilet only once all at the same time it would take enough water to have a healthy flow of 1,500 CFS, higher than the average summer flow. That’s a staggering amount of water literally taken out of our rivers and flushed down the toilet.
I can hardly begin advocating always peeing by a tree or bringing back the chamber pot. But, if I ever were in such a position to build my own house, it would sport a composting toilet. Low volume toilets even seem to pale in comparison. Why do we need to flush everything away anyway?? Why not grow a garden from all of our shit and piss instead of sending rivers to treatment plants?