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Toilet Overflow : Santa Monica Is Not Exactly Flush With Ideas of What to Do With Its Collection of Cast-Off Commodes

February 28, 1991|SHAWN DOHERTY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just off the end of the runway at Santa Monica Municipal Airport, amid a field of wildflowers and beneath a stand of eucalyptus, there are thousands of discarded toilets that nobody is quite sure what to do with.

And no, it's not funny.

The toilet graveyard is a byproduct of an innovative $2.9-million water conservation program that requires Santa Monica homeowners and landlords to replace water-guzzling toilets and shower heads with low-flow fixtures. Almost half of the average household's water is flushed down toilets or washed down shower drains.

The law, which took effect last July 1, made Santa Monica the first California city to require that existing residences be retrofitted with the low-flow fixtures or face monthly fines.

The city offers $100 rebates for installing the shower heads and toilets. New toilets range in cost from $99 for a basic loo to $400 for a designer model. City officials will cart away the old johns to the field, situated near the eastern end of the runway, for free.

Since the law went into effect in 1990, nearly 8% of the city's households have participated, replacing nearly 6,000 toilets, according to Atossa Soltani, the city's conservation coordinator.

Soltani said the new toilets, which use only 1.6 gallons of water per flush instead of about six gallons for a conventional toilet, are saving the city about 200,000 gallons of water a day. Installation of low-flow toilets and shower heads cuts the daily water use of an average household about 20%, Soltani said.

She predicted that the City Council's decision this week to order a 25% reduction in water use, beginning April 1, will swell the ranks of residents who replace their toilets with the thriftier models. "It will be the only way that households can easily reduce their water consumption by the required amount," she said.

The council this week also doubled the monthly water-bill surcharge for owners who fail to install the low-flow fixtures to $2 a month. In addition to the surcharge, property owners whose water consumption exceeds their monthly allowance face additional fines, regardless of whether they have installed the low-flow fixtures.

The stiffened water-saving rules are likely to bring a new influx of old toilets to the airport field, where a sign now reads, "No Unauthorized Dumping."

The program's success has created an ecological dilemma: What to do with the discarded toilets, which now number nearly 5,000?

"It's a problem that's been hanging over us since the start of the program," Soltani said. "We've got a sea of toilets, and we're running out of room."

"It's an eyesore," said Soltani's boss, Richard Holland, the city's environmental programs administrator. "We've traded off a water conservation problem for a land-use problem. Our dilemma is we don't want to throw them away into some landfill. It makes sense to conserve and reuse them."

Airport director Jeff Mathieu said the toilets were actually "good tenants" and were not creating any big problem yet.

When the rebate plan was first considered, city officials had a plan for the old toilets: They would be dropped into Santa Monica Bay to create an artificial reef that, over time, would become a hospitable habitat for fish, kelp and other marine life.

"I guarantee the fish do not see these as toilets. They see them as condos," said Councilman Dennis Zane, a supporter of the plan.

But state officials flushed away the reef idea. A couple of researchers from the state Fish and Game Department dove into the ocean to see what had happened to an experimental clump of commodes placed off the coast near of Marina del Rey. They found a pile of porcelain shards.

"The toilets break up real badly from anchors and wave action," said Dennis Bedford, a marine biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. "Cities with the same problem have made similar suggestions up and down the coast. But it looks like a dead end."

Officials next considered looking for someone to peddle them to a buyer or buyers in Mexico, but worried they'd break during the trip down. Besides, Soltani said, allowing someone else to use a wasteful toilet defeats the whole purpose. "We want to see that toilet destroyed," Soltani said.

The latest hope for a solution is to recycle them. City officials have had preliminary discussions with G.P. Milling Co. in Oxnard, which has used its rock and concrete crushers to transform tons of toilets from drought-stricken Santa Barbara County into base material for road pavement.

Larry Farwell, a water conservation coordinator in the Goleta Water District, predicted that the recycling project will become popular as localities struggle to comply with drought measures and to meet a new California law requiring cities to reduce the amount of waste they send to landfills by 25%.

"It's very weird," Farwell said. "I never thought I'd have to be a toilet expert when I grew up. But toilets are hot right now. This is an important step in making our country more efficient and not wasting our resources."

Soltani said that the city hopes to begin clearing its field of toilets and trucking the fixtures to a milling operation in the next month or so. "We just want to get rid of them," she said.

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