Once upon a time, there was no municipal water system. People collected water in barrels, dug wells, or gathered from streams and lakes. City folks had city wells and cisterns. Everybody had to lug the water around, from the source to the house. Because it took so much effort to acquire the water, it was used conservatively. Everybody in a house might share the same tub of bathwater. Dishes and clothes were washed in small tubs of water. Washing was infrequent, saved for absolutely necessity. Water wasn’t used for elimination at all.
There were downsides. Stored water could get infected. Wells and rivers could carry disease. Disposing of human waste in big cities was a big, smelly problem. Everything was smelly, to an extent that modern-day humans mostly wouldn’t believe. Everything was usually dirty. Large amounts of physical effort had to be expended just to bring drinking water to the mouths of those drinking it. These conditions still exist in many under-developed parts of the world today.
Suddenly (very suddenly when you look at the expanse of history), some bright engineers came up with municipal water. Bit and pieces of the modern municipal water system can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome, but it wasn’t until the last couple hundred years that the system as we know it came to be installed everywhere. Suddenly every home had as much water as the occupants wanted, with no effort at all. All they had to do was turn the tap, and they could have buckets and barrels of water. Fees for using the system were relatively low, and the public health benefits of municipal water, sewer, and treatment have been undeniably tremendous. Cholera and other diseases are virtually unknown in the Western world as gallons of water whisk every body elimination off to be treated, out of sight and generally out of mind. The streets no longer smell of human waste. We have so thoroughly eliminated our natural body odors through frequent washing that now we regard any trace of it as shameful and constantly cover ourselves with various fragrances in our soap, our perfumes, our lotions, our antiperspirants, our shampoo and hair spray, the detergent we wash our clothes with and the softener we dry them with, even our toothpaste and mouthwash.
It has been so long since our civilization has had this easy access to water that we can’t imagine living without it. Many cities now actually make it illegal for their residents to manage their own water, to disconnect from the municipal water supply. Some places make it illegal to dig wells. Some outlaw rain barrels and cisterns. Some just plain outlaw not having the water turned on. In order to live in these places, a person is required to connect to a system that requires them to pay money for it. Most of these regulations fly under the radar of public scrutiny because none of us question the system anymore. We take for granted our ability to have abundant, even exorbitant amounts of water at the touch of a lever.
Make no mistake, money must be paid to maintain this system. Municipal water does not fall from the sky. It must be carried by pipes which must be forged and installed, replaced and repaired. It must be collected from wells or rivers or aqueducts, run through machines to sanitize it and treat it, add fluoride and chlorine and sometimes even salt to it. Water flow must be measured by meters which must be made, maintained, and monitored. Sewage must flow through pipes without leaks and be treated in a plant staffed by workers and filled with machinery that must be made, maintained, and repaired endlessly. The modern municipal water system is a huge monster that must constantly be fed with the work of other humans, and these humans must be paid for their efforts. TANSTAAFL.
All of this brings me to two situations that came to my attention last week. The first made international headlines as a humanitarian crisis when Detroit began shutting off water to residents who had not paid their bills in months. Calls went up around the globe for Detroit to turn this water supply back on. Let’s put that another way: Access to this system was declared a right by protesters everywhere, and Detroit was bullied by public pressure to provide free, unlimited access to a not-free system to people who had already gone months without paying for this access. Rephrase it again: Detroit residents were deemed to have a right to the fruits of others’ labor through their free access and use of a system that requires time and effort to maintain. I don’t like the idea of a family not having water any more than anybody else, but we can’t beat around the bush here. That water is not free. It doesn’t just fall from the sky. Declaring that somebody has a right to tapwater is the same as declaring that they have a right to place an unpaid demand on somebody else’s time and effort. It makes slaves out of the workers who build and maintain the system.
It seems to me that one way to reduce the impact of water shutoffs in a city where a significant portion of the population is unable to pay for municipal water is to teach them to do without it. Remove any regulatory obstacles to homeowners going off the water grid so they do not face fines and penalties they can’t pay for not being connected to the water they can’t pay for. Spread education about rainwater collection, water usage conservation, ways to reduce usage and sewage like composting toilets and garden irrigation with gray water. Not using municipal water doesn’t have to mean a return to the champerpots and sewage-filled streets of five hundred years ago, not with the advances in knowledge and technology that we have made since then. For much less than the cost of maintaining a water connection to home that do not pay, residents could receive the equipment and education needed to live safely and sanitarily without that connection. Whether paid for by the water utility directly (perhaps through fees charged when a user first connects to the system) or (preferably) through a private humanitarian fundraising initiative, teaching responsible off-grid living would solve the problem of access to water for Detroit residents without making slaves of its workers.
The second news story that caught my attention concerned the drought conditions in California. The climate in California and the rest of the southwest has been wetter than historically normal for the last 200 years or so. During this wet period (wet being relative; nobody thinks of that area as being wet!) these states were settled in huge numbers. Many of the settlers there brought attitudes about landscaping with them from their former, water-abundant homes: green grass, non-native water-hungry plants and trees, landscaping more suited to Florida than the deserts of California. Attitudes about this “proper” style of landscaping are so strong that many cities and neigborhoods have regulations requiring this style of landscaping, with fines assessed on those who do not maintain healthy, green lawns.
Now the California region is reverting back to its historically-normal climate, which is significantly drier than the cities there have learned to expect. Life in the Southwest, always precariously balanced in lands of extreme heat and scrub desert, now faces a shortfall in the water they have been using to maintain their lifestyles. Water gets diverted to farmlands and vineyards, drawn off for bottling, leaving less than a bare minimum to flow into the strained municipal water systems. Water rationing, something residents of Central Texas have taken for granted every summer for decades, has finally hit the Pacific coast, with the state of California calling for residents to reduce their water consumption. Guidelines have been set forth that are so specific that residents are instructed not to allow water to hit the sidewalk or their house when they water their grass, and the state is preparing to enforce these guidelines with fines later this summer.
These state-wide conservation orders don’t mean much, though, to some areas with green landscape regulations in place. How bizarre is it to receive a fine from your city for a brown lawn, and the threat of a fine from your state if you dare to water it?
The attitudes leading to the brown-lawn fines stem from the same source as the attitudes over the Detroit water shutoffs. Access to municipal water has been so cheap and abundant that it is deemed an infinite resource, free for the taking and unlimited in supply. No thought is given for the source of the water, the effort required to build and maintain the system that delivers it, or the scarcity of the water in any given region. Once again, to deem this type of water a right makes slaves out of the workers who provide it, and to require its use along with its payment makes slaves out of the consumers. Never mind the fragility this reliance creates in our society. The more we rely on these interconnected systems, the more devastated we will be by any damage or threat to those systems. The responsible response to both of these situations is to continue moving in a direction of less choice-reducing regulation and greater access to self-sufficiency for all who choose that path.