October 10, 2018

A Day Without Water

I don’t even like to think about it, but I want to ask you to imagine a day without water.

No water to drink, or even to brew coffee. No water to shower, flush the toilet, or do laundry. Hospitals would close without water. Firefighters couldn't extinguish fires and farmers couldn't water their crops.

Some places in America already know what it’s like to go a day without our most precious resource: water. (See Tulare County, CA.) But many Americans take water for granted every day. Imagine a Day Without Water 2018 is the fourth annual day to raise awareness and educate America about the value of water.

In his captivating book, The Big Thirst, The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, Charles Fishman writes compellingly about the ubiquity (and necessity) of water:

We live very wet lives, but we have no idea just how wet. The effortless way we have come to manage water is a testament to both water’s moment to moment utility and to our own ingenuity. But unlike the time we spend at the gas pump — where we can see the gallons as they are pumped, and the instant impact on our credit card bill — the way we handle water use insulates us not just from the wonders of water, but from any sense of how much water daily life requires, or the work and expense required to deliver the water.

Back in 1999, a team of researchers recorded 289,000 toilet flushes of Americans in twelve cities, from Seattle to Tampa. In fact, the researchers used electronic water-flow sensors to record not just toilet flushes but every “water event” in each of 1,188 homes for four weeks.

Although the study cost less than $1 million, it is considered so detailed and so pioneering that it hasn’t been duplicated in the decade since; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to cite it as the definitive look at how Americans use water at home.

The study’s overall conclusion can be summed up in four words: We like to flush.

For Americans, flushing the toilet is the main way we use water. We use more water flushing toilets than bathing or cooking or washing our hands, our dishes, or our clothes.

The typical American flushes the toilet five times a day at home and uses 18.5 gallons (70 liters) of water, just for that.

What that means is that every day, as a nation, just to flush our toilets, Americans use 5.7 billion gallons of water — 5.7 billion gallons of clean drinking water down the toilet.

And that’s just at home.

It’s impossible to get your brain around that number, of course — 5.7 billion gallons of water a day. But here’s a way of thinking about it. It’s more water than all the homes in the United Kingdom and Canada use each day for all their needs — we flush more water down the toilet than 95 million Brits and Canadians use.

When we think about the big ways we use water, flushing the toilet doesn’t typically leap to mind. It’s one of those unnoticed parts of our daily water use — our daily water-mark — that turn out to be both startling and significant.

One of the hallmarks of the twentieth century, at least in the developed world, is that we have gradually been able to stop thinking about water. We use more of it than ever, we rely on it for purposes we not only never see but can hardly imagine, and we think about it not at all.

It is a striking achievement. We used to build monuments — even temples — to water. The aqueducts of the Roman Empire are marvels of engineering and soaringly elegant design. They were plumbing presented as civic achievement and as a tribute to the water itself. Today, water has drifted so far from civic celebration that many people visit the Roman aqueducts without any sense at all that they moved water, or how.

I invite you to think about water today — and imagine a day without it. Think about how you use water, disregard it, waste it, and enjoy it. Think about water in the rituals of faith, the pleasure of play, the foundation of life on earth.

Then, for a behind-the-scenes view of water being treated and reclaimed, plan a visit to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s O’Brien Treatment Plant on Saturday, October 13 for a free open house sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. There will be refreshments, fun activities for kids, free compost and oak saplings to take home (while supplies last). You’ll gaze in wonder at the size of the pumps and pipes and marvel at the industrial aesthetic from the 1920s.

Saturday, October 13
O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant
3500 Howard Street, Skokie
9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (last tour begins at 4:00 p.m.)