Plunge the handle and your day has officially begun.
As you step into the shower, what you sent down the toilet begins its date with destiny at a treatment plant miles away. The shampoo and soapy water that runs down the bathtub drain is coming along, too, as is the water and grease from the dishes you'll wash after finishing breakfast.
The journey begins in a pipe that's smaller around than a fresh roll of toilet paper. Your leavings travel maybe 50 feet before joining what your neighbors flushed. This pipe beneath the street in front of your house is twice the size of the one under your yard, and big enough to handle halftime from 250 small Super Bowl get-togethers. But 1.4 million of your fellow Phoenicians are starting their day the same way as you, and it isn't long before the eight-inch pipe on your street connects to a ten-inch pipe under a busier street, which connects to bigger pipe under an even busier street until, finally, it all ends up in a 54-inch behemoth, big enough for a 9-year-old to stand inside without ducking his head.
As far as you know, the black water keeps on rolling all the way to the Phoenix wastewater treatment plant on 91st Avenue, the end of the road for sewage from as far away as Mesa. Denizens of Scottsdale, Tempe and Glendale, whose sewage also ends up at the plant, have a stake in this, too.
But the grease from your bacon and eggs doesn't make it. Less than a mile from your sink, it cooled down and latched onto an oleander root that has broken through the pipeline, one more layer of goo on a glob that could eventually stop anything from passing. You never thought you'd see your morning dump again, but your paths cross a few miles from your house, and you don't even know it. Thanks to a pipe ahead that's one-fourth the size it should be, it's gridlocked, just floating there --or perhaps rising ominously toward the surface through a manhole shaft.
There's a certain ebb and flow to everyone's day, and the same is true for sewage. By the time you take your morning coffee break, the subterranean rush hour is over. Everything goes swimmingly as the stuff you don't think twice about makes its way through a system that would reach from here to Chicago and back again if the pipes were laid end-to-end.
The trip grows perilous as the pipes increase in size. Once the pipes reach two feet in diameter, they're likely to be made of concrete. Chances are, that concrete is lined with PVC that has the same flexibility and thickness as linoleum. And there's a good reason it's there.
If waste could, it would cross its fingers upon reaching the unlined concrete pipes beneath Phoenix. These pipes are falling apart. Some have collapsed or been eaten away entirely by corrosive acid. Most of these dilapidated pipes have been repaired, but there are still a lot left in the ground.
If your waste negotiates roots, dodges grease buildups, squeezes through undersized pipes, doesn't spill from corroded lines and makes it to one of the city's two treatment plants, it will join more than 180 million gallons of sewage the city processes each day. That's 68 billion gallons a year.
If it doesn't make it, that's a big problem. And that's what stewards of the Phoenix sewer system are worried about.
Phoenix's sewer pipes are showing their age. A New Times investigation, which included an examination of capital improvement budgets, spill reports and surveys of the city's system, shows:
More than a dozen miles of pipe are at or above capacity, putting citizens at risk of sewage overflows. And Phoenix already has far more overflows than surrounding Valley cities. Exposure to raw sewage can cause breathing problems, infections of the skin, eyes, nose or throat, and gastrointestinal disease. All it takes is a careless touch of an unwashed hand against your face. The hazard zones are huge, consuming several square miles in east, west and north Phoenix (see the city's map at ftp://www.phoenix.gov/pub/payf/
swrzne80.pdf). The capacity crisis has forced a ban on new connections in these areas while the city pays millions to install bigger pipes.
Pipes are starting to crack and collapse, and the deterioration will only increase as the system ages. Unlined concrete pipes are breaking down faster than anyone expected, from the presence of acids that eat concrete. Phoenix's concrete sewer crisis has gone unnoticed by most toilet users, but it's been the talk of the sewage world, with civil engineers from across the country looking to the Valley of the Sun as an object lesson, proof that pipes that were supposed to last at least 50 years won't survive long enough to become our grandchildren's problem.