Throwing out the dishwater

For some, recycling water is a way of life

This bucolic cabin rests in the mountains off the Tahoe Rim Trail

This bucolic cabin rests in the mountains off the Tahoe Rim Trail

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

Susan Tweit is a naturalist and the author of several books. She lives in Salida, Colo.

Once I lived in a one-room log cabin where I pumped my water from a well and heated it on a wood stove. When I was finished washing my dishes, I carried the dishpan outside and tossed the water on the nearby sagebrush.

It seemed natural to me to return the water to the same ground I pumped it from. The extra “rain” from my dishpan nurtured the patch of sagebrush off my tiny porch, keeping it green and fragrant even in dry years.

I was careful not to foul my supply: My disposal site was far from the well itself and the groundwater deep beneath the surface was buffered by the natural filter of soil atop layers of porous gravel. Nowadays my house is serviced via pipes from the mains under the street. Water appears at the twist of a faucet handle and vanishes in a swirl down the drain, with no effort on my part.

Such easy access is a mixed blessing. My valley, along with other areas of the West, is entering its seventh year of drought, despite recent rains. After watching an extraordinary March heat wave suck the snow off the peaks and the moisture from the soil, I grew more and more uneasy.

Water is a limited commodity here, but you wouldn’t know it by turning on your tap. No matter the amount of precipitation we receive—whether briefly generous or so scant it portends drought—our municipal supply pours out unchecked.

I miss the effort I used to expend on drawing water: Turn on the pump, wait for it to pull liquid from below the surface, open the faucet to fill the storage vessels, and lug them down the hill and across the porch into the cabin.

The pumping time and flow varied from season to season, and year to year with the variation in precipitation. Carrying the water from pump to cabin gave me direct feedback on my consumption: At seven pounds per gallon, I felt every cup. It was a powerful incentive for conservation.

I’m not going to rip out my plumbing. Still, when spring blew in hot and dry again this year, I wanted to do something to observe the reality of the water supply I depend on. After some discussion, my husband and I bought a dishpan to collect the water from our kitchen sink, and now we pour it onto our compost pile.

The dishpan holds 11.4 quarts, slightly less than three gallons, and we empty it three times a day. That’s around eight gallons of water, a small fraction of the 271 gallons each person in my community consumes per day on average.

But it’s enough to remind me that the water I use does not come free: Energy to run pumps and purifiers and add manufactured chemicals is required to move it from ditches and wells to my house to sewage plant to river.

Spilling the dishwater onto my compost pile, I am returning some of what I use every day to the soil, where it can percolate through the layers, cleansed by the lives under the surface, and recharge the aquifer I draw from.

I’m also breaking the law. Colorado water law allows consumers just one use, not two, before returning the water to the nearest river. The Uniform Plumbing Code defines dishwater as “blackwater,” the equivalent of household toxic waste, and forbids its disposal except into septic or sewage systems.

The first infraction is a technicality, the second a matter of sanitation. Ours is vegetarian dishwater, free of the animal flesh and fat that cause contamination, so I am confident of the ability of the microbes in our compost pile to sanitize it at least as well as any sewage plant.

Throwing out our dishwater won’t solve my community’s water problems, but it will hone my awareness. It is a private act, an everyday ritual that links me to the consequences of my actions: The more water I use, the more dishpans I haul.

It is also a spiritual choice. By taking responsibility for my used water, instead of consigning it to someone else down the drain, I commit myself to honesty about my impact on this landscape. In that small way, I acknowledge that my fate rests with that of the community of beings dependent on the natural cycles of weather and water and time.

As I spill out the dishwater, I honor the connection between the water that sustains my life and the piece of earth I call home.