"IF IT'S YELLOW, LET IT MELLOW." The old water conservation slogan is partly right: Toilets are the single biggest consumers of indoor household water, using some 64,000 gallons a second across the United States. But even the mellowest, yellowest commode will eventually send a valuable resource down the drain. Not water—urine.
Nutrient rich and superabundant, urine is a top-rate fertilizer. One person's yearly output contains enough nutrients to fertilize up to a tenth of an acre of fruits and veggies. Which is why not everybody sends it to the sewer. For more than a decade, 130 households in Stockholm, Sweden, have collected their urine—nearly 40,000 gallons of it per year—and trucked it off to be sprayed on crops. More than 600,000 Chinese households in at least 17 provinces use special urine-diverting toilets to fertilize crops such as sugarcane, watermelons, and peanuts. Farming communities in 17 African countries have also taken up the practice of collecting urine. And in the central Mexican village of Tepoztlán, an environmental group wheels a urine-collecting porta-potty to fiestas and uses the cache on local fields.
For obvious logistical and gross-out reasons, pooling America's urine has yet to catch on. There are also concerns about the pharmaceuticals in our pee. But when diluted, your own output is safe enough to use in a home garden. For those who are ready to stop flushing, Carol Steinfeld, author of Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants, proposes a new slogan: "Urine Charge."
WHEN I MET Sandra Turnbull on a cloudless summer day, she hadn't bathed in almost a week. Dirty laundry was piling up in the basement of her Oakland, California, home as she waited to run a full load in her high-efficiency washing machine. She'd let her back lawn go almost as yellow as the unflushed contents of her water-saving dual-flush toilet. In her living room, she served me a glass of water, half full; what I didn't drink would join the gray water she was collecting in buckets and bowls in the shower and kitchen sink to put on her fruit trees. "That's the way we save that little bit extra every day," she said. On a good day, her family of four used around 110 gallons—less than a third of what a typical American household of the same size does. Yet the local water utility claimed they were still using too much.
Last July, the East Bay Municipal Utility District responded to the worst drought in more than a decade by ordering most of its residential customers to slash their water use by nearly one-fifth—regardless of how much they were already using. The most profligate could easily meet the goal by drenching their lawns less, but water misers like Turnbull were faced with either paying new fees, appealing their bills, or figuring out ways to conserve even more. At an EBMUD meeting, she joined dozens of angry customers to scold the utility for "penalizing people like us, who have been conserving all along, and rewarding water hogs."
ON THE EDGE of Jim Diedrich's 1,500-acre almond and tomato farm is a rustic office where his son would normally be sitting in front of a flat screen, controlling a superefficient drip irrigation network. But he'll have some more time on his hands this summer. California is in the midst of its most severe drought in nearly 20 years. And to make things worse, two years ago a federal judge ruled that pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta were killing off the threatened delta smelt. And so Diedrich's farm outside the Central Valley town of Firebaugh is receiving almost no irrigation water this year. Sitting in his office, commiserating with a neighboring farmer, he griped, "It's unbelievable the power of the goddamn wacko environmentalists."
Then his neighbor, Shawn Coburn, turned toward me and demanded if I knew how much water it took to grow one almond, a cantaloupe, or a pound of tomato paste. (I didn't. Turns out it's 1 gallon, 25 gallons, and 55 gallons, respectively.) "The people in the city, they don't know what their footprint on nature is," he scoffed. "They sit there in an ivory tower and don't realize what it takes to keep them alive."
Veckatimest is one of the most anticipated and best-reviewed indie rock records of the year—"a game changer" and rare 9.0 on the Pitchfork scale that is said by The New Yorker to capture "a band in full, collaborative density." On this, its fifth release, Grizzly Bear has expanded its psych-folk sound in multiple directions, making it sweeter and happier, or alternately jazzier and brusquer. The choirboy melodies brood and pine, the odd instruments meet seamlessly and neatly layer. The album took more than a year to make. Which is why, ever since its release in May, I've been wondering how it could be that I like it a lot but don't totally love it. Is the problem with me, or with Grizzly Bear?
If there's a literary analogue to Grizzly Bear, it's Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia. Chatwin was a gay Londoner who worked at Sotheby's before becoming a travel writer; he built vignettes with the same attention to detail as one might construct the leg of a Chippendale cabinet. Yet this tendency toward the baroque was leavened by the rough beauty of Chatwin's subject matter. The same dialectic animates Williamsburg-based Grizzly Bear: Acoustic plucking, flutes or strings, and nearly effete falsetto harmonies lift us effortlessly on the wings of electric feedback toward the harshly sublime.
The federal government's Cash for Clunkers program officially began today, but the ridiculous car dealership ads encouraging you to "get rid of that old jalopy" have been airing for some time now:
Nevermind that the Model T shown above gets better gas mileage than many of Detroit's newest offerings. With so much Madison Avenue labor dedicated to trashing old cars, you could be forgiven for feeling a bit of an econundrum: Buy a new car with lower emissions? Or don't, and save the energy needed to manufacture it? Last year, we looked into the question and came up with this rule of thumb: If your car gets more than 25 mpg and you don't drive much, you're better off keeping it instead of buying something more efficient. Fortunately, Cash for Clunkers only allows trade-ins for cars that get less than 18 mpg. Does that make the program the best use of government money? Probably not, but compared to a lot of other subsidies to banks and automakers, it's not all that bad.