Yesterday the New York Times' Home & Garden section finally addressed the story that the White House press corps has dared not bespeak: The possibility that sewage sludge fertilizer has contributed lead and other toxins to the soil in the President's vegetable garden.
A few months ago, it was the quaint Garden section that casually broke the news that the White House garden, which had been created by Michelle Obama to the delight of local and organic food advocates, contained 93 parts per million of lead--a level that is higher than natural background levels but not dangerous. The piece led me to wonder if sewage sludge fertilizer, which had been applied to the South Lawn in the past, could be one cause of the lead contamination. That post created a frenzy in the blogosphere as some people made ridiculous claims that the Obamas were poisoning themselves.
Lost in the obsession over lead levels (which the White House now says have been reduced to an extremely low 14 ppm) was much of any discussion about why people should be concerned about eating produce from land applied with sludge. So the Times deserves credit for acknowledging the issue, even if its reporting was surprisingly cursory and a bit misleading.
Taking issue with my claim that sludge was used on the White House lawn for at least a decade, the Times quoted retired White House gardener Irv Williams, who said it was applied only once, in 1985. When I originally reported on sludge, I had left multiple messages with the White House press office trying to reach Williams or anyone else with the gardening staff, but none of them were returned. So instead, I relied on several stories about sludge and the White House from the '80s and '90s. In 1988, the Washington Post reported that ComPRO was used on the South Lawn "last August." If that's true, then Williams' memory is a bit unreliable. A decade later, the Post reported that ComPRO was being discontinued and that Williams was none too pleased about this. "Meanwhile, along Pennsylvania Avenue, the grounds crew at the White House is preparing for life after ComPRO," the Post reported. "Irv Williams, who has taken care of the White House grounds for 38 years, said they will make due, even though ComPRO has helped the South Lawn." Around the same time, an EPA official told the New Scientist: "The Clintons are walking around on poo, but it's very clean poo." In short, if sludge had long ago been discontinued at the White House, it certainly wasn't the impression being conveyed by government officials.
Why could that be? One reason could be that the EPA was very keen on using the White House example as a PR tool for the selling of sludge to home gardeners and agricultural America. So it's ironic that the spin now seems to have changed directions. In an apparent attempt to counter my message that sludge use by the government was common, the Times added, "And in 1994 President Bill Clinton sent a directive to government agencies telling them to start using environmentally friendly practices for landscaping government grounds, like reducing the use of toxic chemicals."
Really? Then how do you explain what Williams told the Post in 1999, when asked how he would replace ComPRO: "We'll do the same thing we did before we got it--use grass clippings that decompose and regular commercial fertilizer (my emphasis). More to the point, in September, 2007, the EPA adjusted its government procurement standards for the "landscaping products" category to specifically include "compost made from recovered organic materials," including "compost made from biosolids" (the EPA's term for sludge). The standards recommend that government agencies use only compost that meets this definition.
So contrary to the impression conveyed by the Times, it's pretty safe to assume that sludge--with all of its flaws--is still in wide use by the government. At least the paper's gardening section isn't parroting the of Post's "Ornamental Gardener" column of the late '80s, which described ComPRO as "attractive, hummuslike and easy to handle" and conducive to "ideal conditions for healthy root growth." Instead, the Times reports that good sources of organic matter for gardening include "composted leaves, non-acid peat, and well-rotted manure." But sludge? Don't hold your breath.
"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.