AS WE ENTER this season of giving and thanks, I must publically praise an often overlooked but highly essential companion of our cushy modern lives: The toilet.
Yes, there are plenty of other worthy contenders (looking at you, root vegetable peeler), but you may understand my singular devotion as I share the tale of my recent battle with a mighty microscopic enemy, suspected to have breached the walls of my probiotic-bathed intestinal fortress via an undercooked egg.
Though the temptation to resort to the scatological remains nigh, I will simply say that during this time a great war of gastric distress was waged upon my being. Toe-curling abdominal cramps and contorted bloating were followed by complete seizure of all main exit gates.
The invasion was devastating, but I survived the six-day siege. Not completely unprepared, I went through an entire 12-pack of double roll Charmin by myself.
Our teal-and-yellow-tiled bathroom shall heretofore be known throughout Westeros as the Land of 2,000 Flushes, and I shall forever reign as its undisputed Khaleesi.
And I owe it to my throne.
My adoration of the commode became all the more significant after last week’s visit to the City of Savannah Water Reclamation Facility. You’ve probably driven by it on Presidents Street Extension plenty of times, but few besides our stalwart soldiers of sanitation have seen beyond its imposing concrete embankments.
It was a harbinger, really, as the forcible gastroweapon had not yet struck. Looking back, I remember feeling a wee bit off when I met Water and Sewer Environmental Administrator Laura Walker, who helped organize the treatment plant’s first open house and promotion of World Toilet Day to help us citizens understand and appreciate “the marvel of the porcelain wonder.” (I had no idea then how many times I would repeat that phrase over the next six days. And nights.)
Not only do our indoor potties bring dignity to our most undignified moments, they’re connected to a complex infrastructure that protects us from cholera, dysentery, ebola and worse.
“The United Nations designates World Toilet Day for some very good reasons,” explained Ms. Walker, reminding that over a third of the global population does not have a clean, safe, private place to poop.
“More than half a million children died last year due to lack of sanitary conditions in their communities. Many girls around the world are in peril when they have to leave the safety of their homes just to relieve themselves.”
There are so few things that humanity has gotten right thus far, and good municipal sanitation infrastructure is a paragon. You can deposit your foulest mess and push a little lever on your own personal Moon Door and whoosh—it is banished.
But of course, we know it doesn’t just disappear into the void like a young Rickon Stark.
I think it’s important to pursue things, even the smelly ones, to their conclusion, so I followed the department’s interim director Lester Hendrix into the reclamation plant’s, well, bowels.
Mr. Hendrix led me first through the control tower, where sentinels monitor the city’s entire drain/flush/sewage influx 24 hours a day, seven days a week, treating 6,745,000 gallons of our wastewater every year. Pointing to the screens, he showed how our offal is removed in several phases using a combination of gravity and biological processes.
“Nature has a way of treating waste,” he described, explaining that there is no “magic filter” other than the carefully-cultivated tanks of bacteria that anaerobically break down what we flush down.
“Basically, we’re doing what nature would do in a concentrated way.”
From there, we climbed to see the industrial claw that rakes the first level of solids from the incoming flow, kind of a giant Hungry Hungry Hippos situation, except that those aren’t marbles.
A lot of weird and gross things get trapped here, including a lot of kids’ toys, and Mr. Hendrix implores us to keep everything but the necessaries out of our bowls. (Quit flushing those godforsaken tushy wipes, because they don’t biodegrade, no matter what the nice packaging says.)
The next two phases use gravity to allow the larger particles to settle and, in a feat of closed-system engineering genius, be turned into Class A fertilizer for the Bacon Park Golf Course and Hutchinson Island. The rest continues through a series of reservoirs bubbling with bacterial breakdown.
As we navigated the bulwarks of the cement castle, surrounded by moats of halfway-clean gray water, I have never clutched my phone so tightly. The smell was a tad sewage-y but not overwhelming, punctuated by faint whiffs of potpourri. At this point I was beginning to sense the imminent attack of my own infinitesimal invaders, but I could not help but appreciate the magnificence and magnitude of what happens here.
We wound up 13 acres closer to the Savannah River, where the reclaimed water gets a quick splash of chlorine (the only chemical used in the entire process) to rid it of any chaos-wreaking bacterial agents before it’s released back into the wild.
A necessity, Mr. Hendrix reminded, since every time you turn on the tap or watch your porcelain throne fill with fresh water, you start the whole cycle over again.
Which brings us to the bi-monthly $1.50 rate hike you’ll soon be seeing on your water bill. Some have expressed outrage over this unbelievably modest increase, and Mayor Jackson has rightfully excoriated its detractors.
People, Savannah’s water and sewage fees are the third lowest in the entire Southeast. I know so many of us must watch every nickel, but surely, there must be some other cache from which to squirrel nine dollars a year to ensure that when you flush your toilet, Mount Ve-sewage-us doesn’t erupt out of the bathtub.
The City deserves kudos for being uncharacteristically pro-active by funding needed upgrades to the 20 year-old plant to meet new EPA standards and address deferred maintenance. I can’t think of money better spent—especially if a tiny fleck of that funding could go to snazzing up the facility’s mural seen from President Street, because some public art memorial to the monumental activities happening within this excremental citadel is surely in order.
As my own personal principality slowly recovers back under my own intestinal domain, I encourage all of us to include our humble ceramic companions in our expressions of gratitude this week.
Just maybe not during the dinner table conversation.