Flood Zone

There may be a water shortage, but not in my basement.

Once a month, my wife and I visit our public library to read the magazines we are too cheap to buy. The stories are predictable—the same actors and actresses are still in rehab, Congress is still inept, and the western U.S. will run out of water in the next few years. While the problems of Hollywood and Congress are beyond my ability to solve, the solution for the water shortage can be found in my basement, which floods on a regular basis.

On average, our town pipes 11,421 gallons of water into our home each month. Though we return nearly that same amount to the town after we’ve used it, it still sends us a bill for $110. I suppose it is the cleaning we’re paying for, not the water. The town water enters our home in the southwest corner of our basement, next to the stationary bicycle I keep intending to use. Across the basement, in the northeast corner, water from an underground spring pours into our sump pit. When it fills the pit, about every five minutes, our sump pump kicks on, discharging the water through a pipe and into a storm drain in front of our house. I had the spring water tested, and it was fine. (I gave my little brother a glass of it, and he didn’t die.) If I could figure out a way to divert the spring water into my household pipes, I’d save $110 a month. Every now and then a frog shows up in our sump pit, so I’d have to filter out the frogs, but that’s a small matter and easily resolved.

Though I don’t drink bottled water, my fellow Americans drink 8.6 billion gallons of it a year, at an average cost of $10 a gallon. Surprisingly, the purity standards for bottled water are much lower than for most municipal tap water, so I’m thinking of bottling the water from my sump pit and selling it to the people out West. Bottled-water companies are sneaky. They usually name their product Pristine River or Spring Mist or something like that, but 40 percent of it is tap water from a Rust Belt city. I’d give the water from my sump pit a fancy name, Northern Dew, so people would think it came from Canada or the North Pole.

Amy Roberts, our town’s treasurer, keeps track of our water usage and sends us a bill each month. There are four people and one dog living in our home. Amy says we use an awful lot of water for a family our size. The dog gets a bath in the laundry tub once a month, but our sons take two long showers a day, so I think the problem lies there. The average water bill for a family of four is $80, which means our sons are costing me an extra $30 a month—but as habits go, that’s cheap, and I’m not inclined to discourage it, cleanliness being next to godliness.

Amy suggested we replace our old toilets, which use five gallons of water to clear the bowl, with new toilets that use only 1.5 gallons. I bought three new toilets and installed them. It’s too soon to tell whether this will cut our water use. I hope it does, because the next step is peeing in the woods behind our house.

Water had never been uppermost in my thoughts until I bought a place. Between a leaky roof, bad pipes, and a wet basement, I’ve thought of little else since. I lie in bed at night, listening to the water fall into the sump pit, two stories beneath me. I wonder whether the sump pump will kick on or whether it is burnt out and I’ll have to drop in a new pump. I keep one within arm’s reach of the sump pit, ready for a quick replacement if need be. If it storms and we lose power, I hurry down to the basement, flashlight in hand, to make sure the backup pump, powered by two car batteries, is keeping ahead of the water. If not, I have to start the generator, plug in an extension cord, run the cord through the kitchen and down the basement stairs, and connect it to the pump. The generator is loud and wakes the neighborhood men, who come and stand around the sump pit with me, studying the situation. There is nothing like water to excite a man’s interest.

Sump pumps come with guarantees. In my experience, a one-year pump lasts about nine months, a three-year pump lasts two years, and a pump guaranteed for life lasts just over three. By then, I have lost the receipt and have to talk the manager at Lowe’s into giving me a new pump. Judging from his suspicion, there must be sump-pump thieves who go from house to house stealing the devices and turning them in for money. I wear my suit to the hardware store, my tie askew, looking haggard from the effort of comforting the afflicted. I casually work it into the conversation that I’m a minister whose motives are pure. The manager weakens, shakes my hand, and says to the clerk, “Let’s get this man a new sump pump.” In the olden days, clergy members were granted certain privileges in the community—free haircuts, the occasional new suit, a used car every now and again. These days, I’m in it just to keep my basement dry.

We have a farmhouse in Southern Indiana that came to us by way of inheritance. The water there is free, pumped from a well 110 feet beneath the surface. It is clear, clean, and cool. After leaving our home, it filters through a septic system in the field behind the house. In 70 years, the well has never gone dry. If it did, I could get water from the creek behind the house. I tested it by means of my customary method, and it was fine.

There are other sources of water, of course. Almost 69 percent of the Earth’s fresh water is found in glacier ice. Since glaciers move, it makes sense to drag one down the Pacific coast to California. It would take a big boat, but if you had a good tailwind it could probably be done. This is such a good idea, I’m surprised no one has thought of it before now. The Hubbard Glacier, for instance, is 70 miles long, sprawling across Alaska and Canada. It would supply the American West with water for decades to come. We’d have to move it at night while the Canucks were asleep, but I know some people who are sneaky and could do just that.

As important as water is, it is only helpful in the proper proportions. Too much water, and we have landslides, floods, and drownings. Too little, and we have drought, famine, and death. Quite frankly, God’s tendency toward the extremes is a bit annoying. If I were God, I would send a soft, one-hour rain each night, from midnight to one o’clock. Everyone would love me, and no one would question my existence.

Illustration by Ryan Snook.

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.