Michiana Chronicles: Flush The Toilet

Jan 23, 2020

Flush the toilet.

A vortex of water sucks away whatever waste you deposited there. Clean water rushes in to replace it.

The flush toilet, in my opinion, is one of the greatest inventions ever.

Credit Tony Krabill

When I was growing up, my grandparents lived on a farm in Granger, across from the nudist camp on Anderson Road. They did not have indoor plumbing until some time in the early 1960s. I still remember the outhouse, positioned under the mulberry tree about 50 yards from the house. It was a nasty place, filled with unpleasant odors and various vermin, notably bees and other stinging insects.

Nobody liked a visit to the outhouse, especially in the rain or snow. I marvel at how my grandparents, Hungarian immigrants, raised ten children on their farm.  They pumped their water. They cooked and heated their home with wood.  And yes, the twelve of them shared a two-hole outhouse.

Nowadays, we take the flush toilet for granted. We expect the push of a lever to launch our waste on a cross-town voyage through a maze of underground pipes to South Bend’s waste water treatment plant on Riverside Drive. There, as the name implies, the waste is treated, meaning it is cleaned up enough for the liquid portion to be safely released into the river.   Solid waste becomes safe enough to fertilize farm fields.

How much is that worth?

I think about that whenever the city talks about raising the sewage rates. For the past several years, South Bend, where I live, has been working to separate storm water from waste water. Mishawaka and other cities and towns served by sewers are doing the same thing, largely to comply with federal and state mandates to clean up the environment. The goal is to keep waste from polluting our rivers and other waterways whenever heavy rain or snow melt cause an overflow of the combined sewer and storm water pipes.

Phase one in South Bend, completed in 2017, cost almost $150 million. Phase two was expected originally to cost more than $700 million, but city officials are hoping to reduce the cost to $200 million using a plan called SAGE, which stands for Smarter Alternative for a Greener Environment.

Whether it ends up costing a total of $850 million or $350 million, that’s a lot of money. Part of the funds are coming from grants, but part is coming from an increase in sewage rates. The increases are being phased in to lessen the impact that would result from one huge hike in our bills. 

Nobody likes higher bills. Rate hikes always are met with resistance. People complain that we are being nickel-and-dimed to death.

But think about it. What is it worth to you to be able to flush a toilet and have your waste whisked away with amazing efficiency?  How much is it worth to you to have your waste – and everyone else’s – cleaned up enough to avoid polluting our waterways, land and air?

Last year, South Bend had an event known as “Imagine a Day Without Water.’’ Its intent was to remind citizens about how vital water is to our daily lives. Part of the water we use is for flushing our toilets. I ask again, how much is it worth to you to flush the toilet? 

I am a household of one, so I probably don’t qualify as a typical or “average’’ customer. Nevertheless, I find my sewage bill to be relatively cheap. My latest city utility bill showed a sewage charge of $41.13, plus $1.18 for sewer insurance, and a $2 stormwater fee. The total was $44.31 for 31 days of service.  That means it cost me only about $1.42 a day for the convenience of flushing the toilet. Each flush literally costs pennies, but the benefits are invaluable.

To me, it’s a bargain.

Music: "Carried Away" by Passion Pit