Water stories

by Contributor on January 3, 2013

By Merle Massie

Water wells up and flows across the landscape of my memory as a cataclysmic force, ebbing and flowing through my earliest life story. Those encounters shift the flotsam of my perceptions as an environmental historian, shaping the way I think about water. And, these stories require sharing, as they differ radically from that of colleagues raised in urban environments where drinkable water flows under, around, into, and out of every home.

My family’s first farm house, purchased in the early 1970s, did not have a bathroom. Our toilets were the classic outhouse, and a metal five gallon pail with a toilet seat lid tucked strategically behind the furnace in the basement, next to a holder for the toilet paper. It was Dad’s job to haul the honey pail up the stairs every day and dump it in the bush. There was a base efficiency to that daily routine, though, that belies its yuckiness. Humans use bathrooms. Every day. What innovations –– in fertilizer, in composting, in sanitation –– would we create if each household was responsible for managing their own eliminations?

The bathtub was a huge galvanized steel contraption placed under the stairs in the hallway when it came time to scrub up four kids and two adults. Bucketed full of water, Dad plugged in a special water heater that looked to me like a metal foot. My job was to move this contraption every few minutes to different spots in the tub, to ensure even heating. As the youngest kid, I often had the privilege of first scrub in the warmest and cleanest water. But with all the work that went into hauling and warming the water, you can be sure that it cleaned more than one body. Efficiency, thy name is sharing.

When I was five or six, we moved in a much larger farm house, one with a bathroom. This necessitated massive renovations, including digging a cistern –– a huge holding tank for water, dug under the new verandah. While water could now gush, flush, and rush out of taps, we still had daily water concerns. Cisterns do not fill themselves. Our water came in summer from the Garden River (which conveniently flowed through our farm land), pumped by Dad via a snake of black pipe. Tadpoles and the odd frog came too, but they never survived the bleach bath: gallons of bleach poured into the water to stabilize it and kill some of the germs. In winter, water became an expensive commodity, brought to our farm and pumped into the cistern by a water hauling truck.

Living off a cistern creates an instant water shortage. Each drop translated into either time or money. Wasting water was not an option. Mom invested in a SudSaver washing machine and a laundry tub, saving wash or rinse water to use over again. We continued to share bath water –– Who’s next? Who wants my water? was the holler from the tub. And there is an old saying enshrined on the walls of many a bathroom in rural Canada: “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.’  On a farm, you knew the provenance of every drop, and you knew where it was all going. Grey and black water mixed in the sewer holding tank, which was pumped out regularly to some far corner of the yard.

Cistern water was for baths and flushes, dishes and clothes –– but not for drinking. As in our pre–bathroom days, drinking water did not come out of the tap. There was a pail of fresh soft clean drinking water, with a dipper, in the kitchen for general use: teapots and coffee pots, thirsty kids, boiling potatoes, and making juice. We hauled that water from generous neighbors lucky enough to own ‘good’ wells, or from the nearest village where water was treated.

On our current farm, the worth of water remains, and responsibility rests squarely on us. The well and its pump are monitored and maintained, the sewer lines checked, the reverse osmosis system (which purifies the well water for drinking) flushed and cleaned and kept in working order. There is always a back up of drinking water stashed away. If something goes wrong, it is our job to fix it, or find a way to live with or without it.

My water stories feed my imagination of our collective Canadian future: a cistern in every house; tap water clean enough for flushing and washing, but a separate system for drinking; innovation in black water reuse; and finally, a new universal maxim: running water, and (even more so), drinkable running water in everyone’s home is not a ‘right,’ or even a given. Access to clean water, yes. But modern city standards of drinking water flowing from every tap have skewed our perception of how water ‘should’ be delivered to all Canadians, and of what quality, no matter where they live. It is an unsustainable, and untrue, perception. If water was part of our everyday chores, responsibility, and routine (instead of an unthinking part of our day managed by someone else, delivered to our taps and whisked away when we’re done with it), water would once again be worth its weight. And its value would be true.

Merle Massie is a writer and historian, and a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan. Find her blog at: http://merlemassie.wordpress.com/.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jim Clifford January 3, 2013 at 11:11 am

Great post Merle. I learned recently that the municipal water system in Kingston Ontario is the single largest user of electricity in the community. Water is heavy and it takes a lot of power to pump it out of the lake and into homes. I imagine this is true in many other places. So even towns and cities on the Great Lakes, with huge reserves of fresh water, still need to stop wasting water as if we eventually try to move away from coal and gas to renewable energy.

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