It's the flushing, stupid: Potty policies take center stage

The headlines are dire, and the threat is imminent: We could run out of water in 80 to 100 days.

Car washes are shut down; everyone has a suggestion about how to shower smarter or wash clothes less often. But the biggest single household user of water is the toilet, accounting for 26.7 percent of household use, according to the city's website. Yet in all the water-saving tips sent out by the city, telling users to flush less is often buried or not mentioned at all.

Are officials squeamish about resurrecting the mantra from the frequently drought-stricken but trend-setting Golden State of California: "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down"?

"I hope they'd use something a little more tasteful," says Bill Brent, Albemarle County Service Authority executive director. "But the message needs to be the same."

"Signs asking people to conserve water are going up everywhere," says city spokesman Maurice Jones. They're just not of the mellow yellow variety.

The city has cut off water supplying sinks in government buildings, including schools, although hand washing uses a fraction of the amount of water that flushing toilets does.

A city ad asks, "What will you do when the water is gone?" and includes five water saving tips, among them, take shorter showers, fix leaky toilets, and reduce the amount of water used for flushing by placing a quart of water in the tank.

But no "Just say no to flushing."

On another city release, a three-page generic "water saving tips" list goes room by room, starting with the bathroom. There, "flush less frequently" is the number three suggestion, after "don't use the toilet as a wastebasket" and "put a plastic bottle in your tank."

The mellow yellow adage does appear on the city website under the H20use, a graphic showing how to save water in every room of the house. The first suggestion is to replace old toilets with new models that use only 1.6 gallons per flush, compared with the 3.5 to 8 gallons of older models.

Perhaps officials are not restricting flushes for one obvious reason how would it be enforced? One shudders to think about the potty police.

"That's a personal issue," confirms Jim Palmborg, public utilities manager for the City.

More indirectly, the City is encouraging fewer flushes by raising the rates 50 percent for water use above an amount calculated for a three-person average household. The new rates took effect September 17 and have already generated a flood of complaints.

"I should not be penalized for living in a house with nine other students on the water bill," UVA student Jay Rosenberger writes to the Cavalier Daily. People who live in duplexes or have large families have been calling with complaints, says the city's utility billing office.

The first 600 cubic feet costs $14.86; over that, the rate jumps to $37.16 per 1,000 cubic feet. Despite the complaints, the City has no plans to revisit the price hike.

"We had to draw the line somewhere," says Jones. "It was either charge everyone a surcharge or base it upon the three-person family. And we may end up with the surcharge anyway."

That would likely be a Phase 3 measure as water levels continue to drop, "maybe at 50 percent, maybe at 45 percent," says Jones. "We're still looking at it."

With the reservoirs at 54.6 percent of capacity on September 23, it's going to take a lot of rain or a lot of major conserving to forestall Phase 3 restrictions, although Jones was unable to specify what those would be when he spoke with The Hook on September 20. "We're still working on that."

Over at UVA, signage is the first priority. "We've made a sign that shows the Rotunda in a desert," says Cheryl Gomez, UVA's utilities director, and it will be posted in every one of the university's 400 or so buildings.

And the utilities staff is setting an example. "People here are not flushing every time if they urinate," observes Gomez. And while the mellow-yellow sign is not in UVA's plans at this time, "I guess we could consider that," says Gomez, ruling out no measure to conserve water.

At last Saturday's football game, the university trucked in 50 portable toilets as an optional measure. "They certainly were utilized," says Jason Bauman, associate athletic director. Perhaps the biggest appeal to the low-tech toilets: no lines. Bauman's trying to get even more for the October 12 Clemson game.


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