Water Reclamation Story - 2001

By Steve Iddings

Like any good story, it deserves to be told from the middle.

We had water, BAD water, a LOT of very bad  water.  Food particles, glitter, sunscreen, body oils, soap, skin flakes, conditioner, hair, body paint, blood (oops, I wasn't supposed to mention that. Not for drinking mind you, it was our gray water collection at Burning Man, or perhaps it should be called our rainbow water, since almost all the colors of the spectrum were represented.

After Burning Man 2000 a very intrepid, industrious Poly Paradise person hauled it all out with him after the burn. Twenty-four 5 gallon buckets, each one full of this nasty muck water, left the Black Rock Desert with him to find a new home and to LEAVE NO TRACE on the playa. (Thanks again, Ross!) It was then I really understood we had a problem, because nobody else was ever going to volunteer to haul out that much bad water ever again. And if you dump any of it on the playa, then some poor volunteer has to come by later and curse the day you were born as they pick up, by hand, every speck of food and glitter and hair that you dumped on the playa. We at Poly Paradise have way too much Infinite Love to ever let that happen.

So, I set about to steal some of the best ideas from history so that we could continue doing the Human Carcass Wash at Burning Man. Happy, blissful, respectful people, lined up to soap each other up, scrub away all the body paint and glitter, then rinse each other off; all that mucky water collecting into shallow 15 gallon cement mixing tubs. (You didn't think we made all of that gray water just by washing our dishes in camp, did you?

When visiting palaces in India, our guides said they used to re-route river water to drip down woven grass mats. The wind would blow through the mats and evaporate the water, thus cooling the palace. Well, I was fresh out of grass mats, but I did have some gauzy tablecloth material, and every gallon I could evaporate would be a gallon of muck water that no one would have to truck off the Playa. I needed a small structure to drape cloth over, where water that didn't evaporate could be caught and sent through again. So, I built a frame cube out of extra candy cane rebar held together with tie wraps (plumber's ties). I sat that frame of rebar in a cement-mixing tub and draped the cloth all around the inside of the frame.

Evaporation chamber complete! Now to get the water going through to catch a ride on the wind! I borrowed a little electricity from a camp next door and used a small 5-watt fountain pump. It took water from the bottom of the tub, up the outside of the cube, and splashed it down the middle onto the table cloth draped inside. There was plenty of wind, I never had to blow on it. I did experiment with several levels of filters and diffusers and splash platforms down the middle of the cube to better throw the water out to the evaporation cloth. On the top of the cube was a stretched piece of shade cloth, which acted as a filter catching the big chunks of gunk and food and such when I would first pour bad water into the system making it easy to collect those large particles and put them in the trash.

Hallelujah! We were in business! Between the wind and sun we were losing a minimum of 3 to 5 gallons a day to evaporation, plus we had this slight breeze of cooler moist air blowing through camp, AND we had the pleasing sounds of a waterfall for our camp decor. It was working like a charm, so in true 'goober' fashion, I immediately set out to improve it. None of this, 'leave well enough alone' for me, no sir!

Thinking ahead, I'd brought some Jacuzzi shock treatment chemicals, a dry powder of mostly chlorine and its related bedfellows. By a very scientific process, I sprinkled in what I thought was about a tablespoon to process what looked like about 10 gallons of muck water in my 15-gallon tub. Nothing left to variables of chance, everything tracked and carefully quantified, ... Yeah...right. After about 3 hours of the re-circulating evaporation process, the chlorine had broken down the residue of oils, body paint, and soap, leaving water that was now actually just gray like playa dust. That process also killed off any bacteria or other nasty biological agents we may have scraped off people, so the water was now safe to play with in new ways! Oh boy!

There was one other little thing I needed in order to make the chlorine work, I needed acid. Acid activates chlorine, kicks it in the butt, so to speak, that's why people are always checking the pH balance of their pools. And this water had, by it's very nature, a bunch of Playa dust in it, which is alkaline, or "base", the opposite of acid. So, I REALLY needed acid for this trick to work, and I am one cheap bastard, so I wasn't going to go down to Center Camp and buy a bunch of coffee to dump into my process (coffee is fairly acidic). So, I pissed in it. Cheapest form of acid I had, and plentiful too, as I enlisted my campmates to express their Infinite Love for the planet by pissing in the water reclamation project, thus adding enough uric acid to activate the chlorine, thereby cleaning the water.

Once activated, the chlorine begins to evaporate off faster than the water does, but by then it's already done it's work. So now I had clean gray water that was basically filled with silt, (wet dust). I took this processed water and poured it into a controlled pond I'd dug about 1 yard square and about an inch deep. I wanted to see if this water would leave any trace whatsoever as it dried up. It didn't, except that a pond of water is a catcher's mitt for debris, which is always blowing by, so I was constantly picking stuff out of it. Once the Earth Guardians took a look at it they rightly suggested that I just throw the water on the road and help keep down the dust in our beloved Black Rock City.

WhooHoo! Success! Now we could wash as many dishes as we wanted, have as many personal showers as our skin could stand, and have hundreds of blissed-out participants for the Human Carcass Wash, without ANYONE, especially me, having to cart a bunch of dangerous biomedical waste water home with us. Yeee-Hah! Done! Leave No Trace has been achieved, Infinite Love has been expressed so, I immediately set out to improve it. I now had a seemingly endless supply of relatively clean water, albeit a little dusty and with a slight smell of chlorine. And since I was in the middle of the desert, in the summer, living in a camp with very close friends and lovers, and every night I was dirty and grimy, looking for new ways to express Infinite Love at every opportunity. I obviously needed a HOT shower every night!

Early in the afternoon, in a clear 5 gallon container, I would let this gray water sit for several hours so the dust could settle and then I'd siphon off the top 2.5 gallons to use for personal grooming, dumping the rest in the road. With brilliant foresight, I had brought my girlfriend's 50-cup coffee maker (draws about 1000 watts), and in less than 10 minutes it made two and a half gallons of VERY HOT water.  I had also brought a 1.5-gallon pump-up style sprayer (the kind often used to spray insecticides in the garden). Hence, late at night, I heated some water, filled & pumped the sprayer, and showered away to my heart's content. The first time I did this I was cautious to not put this water on my face or genitals, preferring to wait and let the rest of my skin be the guinea pig before it turned me green or gave me rash in sensitive areas. However, by the end of the week I was showering every night, always having more water than I needed, even when shampooing and detailing my private parts (too much information?) All I noticed was that I smelled like I had just gone swimming. Clean body, happy mind, peaceful soul, warm heart, loving the planet, leaving no trace.

Man! I can’t wait to go back this year, so I can ‘improve’ it! … but,

my girlfriend now refuses to use her coffee maker.

Hot Shower Girlfriend's Coffee Maker