Living through the 1950s droughts on Colorado’s dusty plains left me with a bone-deep appreciation for the simple miracle of water. Nothing smells as sweet as raindrops falling on parched soil; a trickling mountain spring brings me to tears.
When my brother moved to Australia, similar feelings shaped the water collection system for the house he built. He snaked black hose across the roof, adding a solar-heated shower before the scarce rainfall harvest was piped into the metal storage tank common to most homes.
Installing a Clivus composting toilet was such a novelty in his rural town in the late 1970s that local officials came to see how it worked, hardly able to believe a waterless system could handle human waste simply, safely and odor-free.
Yet a national park in the middle of Australia’s outback already had discovered water-free composting toilets were ideal for remote locations.
At Katja Tuta, I was transfixed by the beautiful restrooms designed to accommodate busloads of tourists — what Aussies call a “toilet block.” Made of rammed red earth from the surrounding desert, its architectural simplicity blended into the landscape; solar-powered fans insured cool, adobe-like temperatures in the scorching outback.
Now, whenever I encounter a smelly pit toilet, I wonder why our parks haven’t adopted such a simple, low-energy, water-saving, nearly maintenance-free solution — one that’s more pleasant and sanitary, to boot.
In the (usually) moist and rainy Northwest, it’s easy to forget that only 3.5 percent of all Earth’s water is fresh. Our water supply depends on rain and mountain snow accumulation — both from an increasingly cranky, unpredictable climate.
I watch in amazement at how our communities handle our precious water. Sequim’s water reclamation project uses Mother Nature’s clean-up squad — soil and trees, cattails, critters and such — to create a popular public park and supply irrigation water.
Port Angeles seems determined to spend millions on a system that mixes rain from downspouts with sewage, creating a tsunami of contamination with every heavy rain, while also virtually giving water to Nippon. Some special agreement between the city and the mill provides water below market rates to Nippon without metering or measuring, last time I checked.
In between, Carlsborg residents can’t decide what’s best.
There’s no easy fix, no one-size-fits-all way to make the most of our water, to provide for people and forests, fish and shellfish, business and recreation.
We have, however, created an acronym avalanche of organizations concerned about water issues with overlapping jurisdictions, concerns and mandates, including nonprofit organizations, government agencies and public-private partnerships. Plus a body of water law so Byzantine in complexity that it’s a specialty unto itself.
If rules and regulations were the answer, we’d certainly have it all sorted out by now.
Part of what’s missing is awareness: Use rain barrels to catch water for your lawn and garden, instead of letting it wash down the sewer. Use permeable pavement instead of asphalt or concrete. Pick up your dog’s poop. Plant trees. Create a neighborhood rain garden. Install a composting toilet and challenge any rules and codes against them.
Look at what your community is — and is not — doing. Silverdale’s water quality improved dramatically when commercial parking lot owners cleaned their stormwater systems regularly, for instance.
My favorite water story comes from Bali, a mountain-shaped island with rice paddies notched into the hillsides. At the top stands the Temple of the River Goddess. The waters that flood Bali’s rice paddies are controlled by the priests of the Temple of the River Goddess.
National Science Foundation researchers decided they could increase rice yields by improving this antiquated method of water distribution. They measured rainfall, soil moisture, harvests on the wetter and drier sides of the island. Their conclusion: that the best distribution system was that of the temple priests of the River Goddess.
Everyone benefited because the priests’ venerable system honored the wisdom of generations who’d tended the rice paddies with a concern for the well-being of all the island’s residents.
I can’t think of better decision-making guidelines than honoring ancient wisdom, caring for all life in the ecosystem and respecting, perhaps revering, the sacred, life-giving nature of water.
Diana Somerville writes about creating more sustainable communities and our personal connection with the environment. A Clallam County resident, she’s a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Reach her at www.DianaSomerville.com or e-mail email@example.com.
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