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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.