When I was young and idealistic, I lived a back-to-the-land existence in a one-room log cabin in Wyoming. The cabin sat in a sea of sagebrush at the edge of town, its lone connection an electric wire. No phone, no natural gas, no running water.
I pumped water by hand from a well, carried it to the cabin, and heated it on a wood stove. When I was finished bathing or washing dishes, I carried the dishpan outside and carefully emptied it.
It seemed natural to me to return that precious liquid to the same ground I pumped it from. The extra “rain” from my dishpan nurtured the patch of sagebrush off the tiny porch, keeping it green and fragrant even in dry times. I was careful not to foul the 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.
Eventually, I moved away to attend graduate school, where I fell in love with a fellow student and his small daughter. I adapted easily to life in town, including indoor plumbing.
No hand-pumps, no hauling water by the bucket, basin, or jerry-can. No careful and parsimonious reuse: saving rinse-water for sponge baths, or water from cooking vegetables to wash the mud off the dog’s paws. Water simply appeared at the twist of a faucet handle, conveyed by pipes from the main under the nearby street, and vanished in a swirl down the drain, with no effort on my part.
Such easy access, I’ve come to believe, is a mixed blessing.
Fresh water is a limited resource—not just here in the arid West, all over Earth. Just two percent of our planet’s water is fresh, and that metaphorical drop in the globe’s bucket must quench the thirst not only of we 7.4 billion humans, but the entire array of terrestrial beings from microscopic water bears to the tallest redwood tree.
You wouldn’t know our planet’s fresh water supply was limited by turning on your tap. For those of us fortunate enough to have plumbing and treatment plants, clean water pours out unchecked from our faucets, the flow no reflection of drought or plenty, of the amount of energy required to extract the liquid from underground aquifers or pump it from a river, lake, or reservoir; nor the chemicals required to meet drinking-water standards, or any other concerns. For we fortunate, a simple flick of a faucet handle makes water appear and flow, as if it always will.
I miss the effort I used to expend on drawing water: turn on and prime the pump, wait for it to gurgle, pulling up liquid, open the faucet to the cool gush that fills the storage vessels, and lug them, two by two, down the hill.
The pumping time and flow varied from season to season with the variation in precipitation. Carrying the water from pump to cabin gave me direct feedback on my consumption: at eight pounds per gallon, I felt every cup. It was a powerful incentive for conservation.
I’m not going to rip out my plumbing. Still, in these times when drought grips my valley more years than not, shrinking our average annual precipitation of nine measly inches to as few as two, I needed to do something to honor the blessing of fresh water. So after much thought, I bought a dishpan to collect the water from the kitchen sink, which I pour onto the compost pile.
The dishpan holds 11.4 quarts, slightly less than three gallons, and I empty it three times a day. That’s a little over 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 fresh water I use is a gift, drawn from the aquifer below ground, pumped and treated and piped to my house, and returning—after a journey through the sewage plant—to the nearby river.
Spilling the dishwater onto the compost pile, I am returning some of what I use every day to the soil, where it can percolate downward, cleansed by the lives who populate the soil, and recharge the very aquifer it comes from.
But I’m also breaking the law. Colorado water law allows consumers just one use, not two, before returning the water to the nearest river. By pouring my used water onto the compost instead of sending it down the drain, I am using it twice. Also, 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. Mine is vegetarian dishwater, free of animal flesh and fat, so I am confident of the ability of the microbes in the compost to cleanse it at least as well as any sewage plant.
Throwing out my dishwater won’t solve the planet’s fresh water shortage, but it does 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 down the drain, I commit myself to honesty about my impact on this high-desert 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 my life and that of the piece of earth I call home. I feel the water in the weight I carry, feel its cool drops as I tip the pan to shake it out, feel the earth beneath my feet open and soften, receiving the life-giving liquid.
None of us want to haul our own water. But taking some of the fresh water we use in hand every day helps us know it more deeply. Fresh water is not a commodity, nor a stream that flows unceasing from our taps; water is the fluid we share with all other beings.
By being mindful about the fresh water we use, we return our focus to that connection, to our relatives both human and more so, to the simple miracle of two hydrogen atoms hooked to an oxygen atom, the fluid that makes this planet hospitable—for us all.
This essay evolved from “Throwing Out the Dishwater,” originally published by Writers on the Range, a syndicate of High Country News.