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Jewish World Review May 8, 2000 / 3 Iyar, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports


`Excuse me, but there seems to be something in my water' -- CALIFORNIA, WE HAVE LONG BEEN TOLD, is the place where America's trends are born. The way we live is determined there -- things that seem odd and cutting-edge take root in California, then slowly work their way to the rest of us. By the time we're ready for them, they don't seem so odd anymore.

But I'm willing to go on record: This new toilet-to-tap-water idea that is beginning in California right now will never catch on anywhere else. There is no way in the world that the rest of the country will ever buy into this.

You may have heard about it (if you haven't, you're lucky):

Sewage water flushed down the toilets of residents of California's San Fernando Valley will, under the plan, be sanitized -- and then end up as drinking water that comes out of faucets of people in the Los Angeles area.

This is all being done is the name of environmental concerns and ecological benefits.

The purification of the water flushed down toilets reportedly takes five years. By the time people drink it, it allegedly will be just fine -- tasty and clean.

Yet -- as Lori Dinkin, president of the Valley Village Homeowners Association, told the Los Angeles Daily News -- "This is human waste. I'm very uneasy about that."

Indeed. Environmental groups have said that this toilet-to-tap-water method will assure that the Los Angeles area will not have to depend on water pumped in from other parts of the state, and that by drinking cleaned-up toilet water, residents will be doing something that "is less destructive to wildlife habitats in Northern California and along the Colorado River."

Which is all very praiseworthy -- wildlife habitats should be preserved and protected whenever possible -- but if it means telling people that the water they are gulping down is water that, five years before, was flushed from the toilets of strangers. . . .

Well, you'd think that political realities alone would kill this plan before it even gets started.

It would be the dream position for any California politician to be able to take: He or she could face the electorate, and, in speeches and radio and television commercials, say about the incumbent:

"Friends, may I remind you that during my opponent's administration, you were told that you must drink water that was flushed from other people's toilets."

You would think that there might be a 100 percent turnover in the California political structure. Out would go every elected official who was in office when the toilet-to-tap-water plan took effect; in would come every candidate who would tell voters that he or she is disgusted by the very idea.

The subject of water -- where it comes from, how it is paid for -- is a complicated one, and it is one that citizens prefer not to have to think about too much (and, in fact, virtually all tap water is recycled in one way or another). Twenty-five years ago, you never would have guessed that Americans would willingly pay for bottles of water to drink, the same way they pay for soda pop; now it is so common that even McDonald's sells water in bottles, and people seem convinced that if they are swigging down a bottle of water they have paid for, it is fresher and tastier than what they might get from the tap. (They make this assumption even though they usually have no idea where the bottled water came from, and how long it has been sitting around some warehouse, or in the hold of some ship on its way to the United States from Europe.)

This California plan, though . . . you would think that someone in authority would have overruled the scientists. Obviously the scientific experts believe with complete confidence that, in the five-year cleaning program, water flushed from toilets can be so thoroughly purified and sanitized that there is no chance at all for any problems.

Still . . . someone should have sat down with them and said:

"How do you think people are going to react when we tell them: `Drink this water. Someone went to the bathroom in it and flushed it down the toilet five years ago, but this should not concern you at all. We can vouch for the goodness of this former toilet water -- after all, we're the government. Trust us on this.'"

No, whatever happens with the toilet-to-tap-water plan in California, you can assume that this is one trend that will never make it past that state's borders. All around the United States, politicians are polishing their campaign slogans for every election year in the century ahead:

"Vote for me -- and I'll never make you drink from the toilet."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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