At Colorado College, sustainability is sexy. We champion the idea of exploring the canyons, forests, and deserts of the world without leaving a trace of our passing. However, as climate patterns become more extreme and human society continues to expand, achieving sustainability is easier said than done. If we are going to simultaneously explore and protect, we need to figure out ways of brining our water in and out without dumping any into the land. And, being CC students, we’d really like to do it on the cheap.
We decided to study DIY sustainable water management in a post-apocalyptic desert society without electricity, natural gas, or running water. In other words, Burning Man.
This year, a record breaking 61,000 people bought Burning Man tickets and the estimated attendance is even larger (you don’t have to a buy a ticket if you sky-dive into Black Rock Playa, Nev.). The art festival is eight days long, but many people stay for weeks before and after building incredible structures and then removing any trace of their presence, down to the last sparkle-covered piece of ash.
Festival-goers, known as “burners,” have found ingenious ways of leaving no trace on the playa; there is no better place to learn and test LNT practices. We compared water storage and water removal (evaporation) techniques during the hot, dusty week in the end of August. We brought four different water tanks and four different evaporation ponds/solar ovens to have burners rank by taste and smell, respectively. We also prepared a survey asking burners what was most important to them when planning how to deal with their water on the playa.
There is a steep learning curve in Black Rock City; we quickly realized that many of the experiments we had planned were not going to work. The constant wind fills evaporation ponds with dust and knocks over solar ovens, spilling greywater onto the playa. A water taste test is not as attractive as the pomegranate martini bar across the street. Anything involving MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) such as Dixie cups or paper surveys quickly turns off burners.
Despite the challenges we faced in implementing our study, we found that fellow burners were ultimately eager to share their tips and tricks for thriving on the playa. Some ideas were very simple, such as a clear bucket sitting on a white sheet. The white sheet bounces all the light back through the bucket for optimized evaporation and wind does not knock over the bucket.
Other evaporation contraptions looked like steampunk art projects. Many large camps used the “evapatron” (an evaporation apparatus created for burners by burners) to evaporate greywater waste. The evapatron combines a traditional evaporation pond with a wind-powered wheel. As the wind blows, a propeller turns a cylinder made from two bike wheels, which is covered in either fabric or plastic. The cylinder picks up a coating of water as it turns. This speeds up the evaporation process by exposing more water to air and sun at any given moment.
We have yet to compile the data from the completed surveys, but much of what we learned at Burning Man occurred outside our formal research. The transient metropolis encourages sustainable innovation to an incredible degree. Thanks to Burning Man’s art-centric philosophy, burners build hundreds of interactive art displays every year, ranging from a giant hipster-mustache seesaw to a Charlie the Unicorn art car. At Burning Man, a do-it-yourself attitude prevails. This ingenuity has become integral to the playa lifestyle; burners would rather build than buy, creating original evaporation ponds, three-story tents, and pedal-powered go-carts.
We experienced a wealth of LNT knowledge at Burning Man, but more importantly, we discovered a wealth of creativity. So, even if Burners have yet to reach the pinnacle of efficient water management, we would bet our $60,000 tuition checks they will soon.
Leona Waller and Elle Beckett