Thursday, January 5, 2012


Of all forms of waste flowing into the City of Living Garbage, wastewater is most potentially vivacious.  Not "water" in the abstract--the concept of atoms composing a pure molecule--but this water, a liquid palace polluted or graced with living and abiotic forms, many invisible. Any H2O can be cultivated as living water, stored up to hydrate plants. How can you have a garden without water, much less a body or anything else?

We were thinking and worrying about water all the time. Summer after summer, little catastrophes crossed the Texas sky. Not tornadoes or floods, but nothing--no rain. Austin's Lake Travis, the reservoir formed by damming the Colorado River to supply the city with water, fell over fifty feet below average levels. Trees turned brown and died. Newspapers mourned the death of six hundred thousand cattle, the inferno that burned up over a thousand houses and half of parched Bastrop State Park. The environmental group Save Our Springs sent out panicked mass-emails: "We can no longer take water for granted." Lance Armstrong apologized for using 333,000 gallons of water in a single month. The City of Austin pushed conservation by restricting automated watering to one day a week and creating a dozen new Code Compliance jobs--water cops--to enforce restrictions with $500 fines. Austinites helped police their neighbors’ water use by calling 311 if sprinklers were running on the wrong day. There were rumors if the droughts continued the City would restrict all landscape watering, unless you had a permit for a food garden.

As the drought years pried open the taken-for-granted form of urban water, its consumption took on moral tones. Simple things like fast showers became ways to do something good for both the city and “the environment.” Little differences were supposed to add up--drops that fill the bucket for the good of the collective. As with oil consumption and other environmental issues in the public sphere, a messianic, salvational ethic began to course through everyday practices, charged by ominous weather events attributed to global climate change. Suddenly the city’s water security felt vulnerable, caught in the tenuous future of apocalyptic discourses.

Following the droughts our kitchen sink stopped draining. I'd learned about DIY wetlands at the Rhizome Collective's RUST workshops and read about them in the Greywater Guerrillas' book Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground,* and thought, “This is free water! Why pay the City to take it away? I can reuse it for plants, instead of the hose.” The licensed plumber couldn't fix the sink drain without replacing everything, so I asked him to just put a pipe out of the back of the house. He was dubious. Every few days for half a year, I hauled buckets of bad water from beneath the drainage pipe to a feed trough full of pea gravel and elephant ear. The plants withered and mosquito larvae infested the water. The galvanized metal tub killed the gambusia minnows introduced to eat the larvae. Rat-tailed maggots thrived; their breathing tubes tangled in the electric pump used to aerate the water, stopping it up. The bad water’s rotten-egg smell stuck to my hands after cleaning dead rat-tails from the pump. My wetlands learning curve arced through an abject realm of decaying organisms.

Eventually I installed pipes connecting sink to wetland. No more hauling buckets.  After rereading my notes from the RUST workshop about hiding the water's surface under pea gravel to stop mosquitoes from breeding, I transformed the tubland into a closed-surface system like a gastrointestinal tract. If architecture mimics human bodies and metabolic processes, the kitchen-sink tubland extends my intestines. Such cyborg living machines can be uncanny and abject, to be sure, but also fascinating, surprising, and loveable. Constructed wetlands invite species into emergent microecologies that regenerate urban ecologies. The resulting landscape patches do much more than function or survive: they tinker, bloom, and flourish. Cannas introduced from the yard explode into giant stalks with droopy orange flowers. Every day about five gallons of incoming gray water displaces remediated water to a fig tree, rose bush, and salvias with violet-blue flowers. Hummingbirds visit the salvia, and butterflies and wasps eat overripe figs on the tallest branches. As an alternative solution to wastewater management the tubland implicitly criticizes status quo sewers that unnecessarily mix human excreta with not-so-dirty water. 

Before the droughts, Austin had started building an $849 million treatment plant to draw 50 million gallons a day (mgd) from the Colorado River by 2014, assuming that the reservoir's water levels would hold. The City also tried to reduce water use by spraying pretreated  gray water on municipal lawns, giving away low-flush toilets, and offering rain-barrel rebates, paying for up to half of the big thousand gallon systems. Customers could install new toilets and rain catches with DIY skills or hire experts, thereby reducing their use of manufactured water.

To produce tapwater Austin pumps up to 285 mgd from the Colorado River to two treatment plants where it goes through technical stages of “screening, disinfection, coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, and filtration.”** The Colorado River then flows through 3,600 miles of pipes into houses, where multiple forms of bad water are produced. As soon as treated water leaves showerheads and washing machines, it becomes  gray water. In kitchen sinks and toilet bowls it turns into black water. It all muddles together in sewers as wastewater mixed with sludge: an abject collection of excreta, toxic household cleaners, pharmaceuticals, skin and hair, gold rings, and anything else that goes down the drain.

Gravity and pumps then pull Austin's wastewater through 2,600 miles of sewers to two plants that together treat 150 million gallons each day. Screens and grit basins remove trash, sticks, and stones that are trucked to landfills. Organic solids settle out as sludge in sedimentation basins. Pumps suck sludge to a biosolids management plant to be mixed with yard debris from curbside pickup. After months of composting, it is bagged and sold as DilloDirt—a product partly made of the consumer's own excrement. Meanwhile, wastewater enters aeration basins full of microorganisms that metabolize the last traces of sludge. Finally, it flows into chlorine basins where bad water is officially killed. More chemicals remove the chlorine before the City delivers the inert water back to the Colorado River. The pumps involved at multiple stages in these processes require large-scale electricity production. Squadrons of workers tend power lines, pumps, pipes, roads, and all the rest of the subsystems. Although it seems monolithic, this water network is full of cracks and leaks that can be altered at various scales. Partial solutions like catching rain or selectively disengaging from sewers begin to patch together urban water futures in the present system’s gaps.

In DIY wetlands, urban waste becomes the habitat for little worlds of non-human agents—populations of plants, animals, and microorganisms cultivated by humans for wastewater management that also thrive as lives of their own. In the 1970s, permaculture architects John and Nancy Todd started designing what they called “living machines” that mimic ecological processes and structures by organizing multi-species in linked greenhouses. While most machines are designed to meet a single purpose, living machines “can be designed to produce food or fuels, treat wastes, purify air, regulate climates, or even to do all of these simultaneously.”*** As “both garden and machine,” the Todds' designs run mostly on sunlight that feeds plant and bacterial assemblages responsible for metabolizing sludge.

As living machines take on lives of their own, multi-species create beautiful sensory worlds through aesthetic improvisations. Water management on microscales involves practices that are time, labor, and attention intensive--so much for “free” water--but the non-humans that call wetlands home do most of the work. Inside the living machine,  gray water and I became part of a long-term process in collaboration with plants, microbes, and animals. These symbioses make a strange collective “we” out of the individual consumers promised freedom from labor and disease by modern sewerage. As Bruno Latour writes (or hopes), “We no longer expect from the future that it will emancipate us from all our attachments; on the contrary, we expect that it will attach us with tighter bonds to more numerous crowds of aliens who have become full-fledged members of the collective.”****

With water no longer taken for granted, we step into a dry future-ordinary of global climate change, racked with drought, famine, resource wars, and you name it. DIY wetlands and other improvised forms of living garbage shift the gloom of future catastrophes from fear and anxiety to the laborious, playful pleasures of habitats bursting with life. While the threat of a dehydrated world can settle into fantasies of scarcity and doom, the messianic side of the apocalyptic sensibility illuminates urban wastewater as a surplus full of utopian potential. The future-ordinary of water scarcity projected by the droughts served as a vantage point into a post-apocalyptic world that survived the end of water as we knew it. Impelled by the future threat of water scarcity, household gray water becomes an untapped form of surplus, opening up an ethical opportunity to reimagine the relationship between house-cities and the landscapes they occupy.


Note: Parts of this entry were first published in Scott Webel, “Free Water! DIY Wetlands and the Futures of Urban Gray Water,” Anthropology Now 3(1): 13-22.

*Allen, Laura, July Oskar Cole, and Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, eds. 2007. Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground. Illustrated by Annie Danger. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press.
**Austin Water. 2010. “Wastewater Treatment Plants,”
***Todd, John and Nancy Jack Todd. 1993. From Eco-Cities to Living Machines. Rev. edition of Bioshelters, Ocean Arks, City Farming. 1984. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, p. 167
****Latour, Bruno. 2004. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Trans. by Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 191.

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