Trendspotting: “… and not a drop to drink”

In your high school literature class, you may remember that the ancient mariner was lamenting the fact that he was surrounded by water, and had not a drop to drink. Not much different today. The earth’s surface is still more than 50 percent water but only three percent is safe to consume.

At a recent Washington briefing by the Center for Strategic International Studies on the Seven Revolutions, I was reminded that the lack of safe drinking water will not only define future global development patterns, but the quality of life for about 3.5 billion people. As a major project of CSIS, Seven Revolutions addresses the challenges of life in 2050 that will be influenced largely by decisions we make now. Just a few tidbits:

  • World population is growing at the rate of two California’s per year (77 million).
  • There are 6.2 billion people in the world in 2003; 7.9 billion are expected in 2025.
  • In 2050, persons older than 60 will exceed those younger than 60.
  • Today, 2.8 billion people live on less than $2 per day.

Being essential to all forms of plant, animal, and human life, access to affordable, safe water will emerge as a global priority, especially if a more "westernized" planet adopts our consumption rates. But that cannot occur. The average family of four in Nebraska consumes approximately 275 gallons of water per day. In Ethiopia, an average similar-sized family consumes less than 10 gallons per day. That gap is not likely to close peacefully, as evidenced by the historical and current conflicts in the Mideast.

Go back to the two California’s per year for a moment. At the current incarceration rate in America, 77 million new folks per year on earth would translate to more than 300,000 new prisoners per year. About 55 million gallons of water per day for the newly incarcerated is based on the current use rates in U.S. prisons. The day’s water usage needs of 5.5 million Ethiopian families could be met for the same amount of water needed to serve the future prison population.

As frightening as all this may sound, this trend is not about a looming worldwide water war or the geo-political ramifications of a continued "head-in-the-sand" attitude about the deprived lives of third world citizens. Instead, this trend acknowledges some positive steps that prison systems are taking here and in Europe to conserve water. My colleague, Richard Ross, the director of capital projects for the Oregon Department of Corrections, suggests that "water is the low-hanging fruit" in cost control for prisons. I believe that he is accurate in his assessment that waste-water management is far more complex and expensive.

However, I want to explore in a few paragraphs a water conservation trend in corrections that Richard intitiated in Oregon. During the planning for more than 3,000 additional bedspaces, ODOC introduced the possibility of vacuum toilets for medium- to high-custody prisoners. The traditional toilet requires 4 to 6 gallons to flush and as most correctional folk are aware, a prison toilet is flushed at least 20 times a day; thus 80 to 120 gallons per day to deposit whatever in the local sewer system. Various products are on the market, but on average, the vacuum toilet (think spacious airplane toilets) requires only 1 to 1.5 gallons per flush.

Leaving the genuine plight of Ethiopian families out of this for a moment, you can see that we are talking significant water savings over the conventional toilets. As environmentally prudent as this might seem, the ODOC experience provided transferable information, such as:

  • Water usage for the toilets was reduced to about 1 gallon per flush. However, new flow-control toilets also only use about 1 gallon and are easier to maintain.
  • Different maintenance for the vacuum toilet system eliminated the use inmate labor.
  • The noise of a vacuum toilet flush is strange to the prison environment.
  • High BOD (solids) content impacts the waste stream since less water is available to expedite flow.
  • Litigation is pending in a local community because of the waste stream problem from vacuum toilets and increased BOD content.
  • Long-stay inmates find ways of compromising any toilet, but repair in the vacuum system is more costly and time consuming.

So, from the ODOC experience (and a number of other jurisdictions that have, switched to vacuum systems), we are reminded again that conservation comes with a cost, albeit one that we have no choice but to consider. Many of the "down-side" findings from Oregon can be, and are being, addressed by designers and manufacturers. Bill Buursma, senior principal with the DLR Group in Seattle, spoke candidly regarding his firm’s pioneer work in the use of vacuum toilets. He corroborates Richard Ross’ lessons, but acknowledges that the industry is working towards resolutions to issues associated with noise, waste stream flow, and impact on waste treatment operation. Both Bill and Richard emphasized that pretrial facilities may represent better candidates for application in the short-term since inmates are generally not incarcerated long enough to master the compromises.

According to Jim Womble, director of sales for EVAC, while the correctional industry has been slow to accept the water savings and lower maintenance costs associated with a vacuum system, the number of installations increases steadily each year. The primary users are not the large new state prisons, but 50- to 100-bed new or renovated county jails. According to EVAC, noise studies have shown that the dBA levels for conventional and vacuum systems are essentially identical. We are just more accustomed to the sound of water rather than a vacuum rush.

In time, the maintenance "playing field" will be leveled as the vacuum system becomes more commonplace and thus technicians more experienced with procedures. Since the parts are fewer, the maintenance will likely be less complicated. At first, dollar costs will be marginally higher, but the economic return appears to be in reduced maintenance cost.

At the moment, EVAC is the only company supplying vacuum toilet systems to correctional environments, but others, such as Acorn, are developing vacuum systems-a further indication that the market is expanding.

Back to Ethiopia for a moment. I can’t seem to shake the idea that with 2.1 million inmates incarcerated in America using 300 million to 400 gallons of water per day, we aren’t able to be more imaginative, if not globally sensitive. Reducing water consumption in prisons (50 percent is possible) unfortunately will not help the Ethiopian family-or even water-rationed communities in Arizona-but as a nation with 6 percent of the population and 25 percent consumption of natural resources, prisons seem to me as candidates for far more conservation pilot programs.

We have an opportunity and obligation to pioneer and innovate in the ocean of water conservation and prison management. It’s time to repair the leaky toilet that, by the way, uses 22,000 gallons of water per year until repaired.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC. in Columbia, S.C. He can be contacted by e-mail, Additional information may be available on the company’s Web site,