Menus Subscribe Search

A Victory for the ‘Water Underground’

• October 13, 2009 • 9:00 AM

Bone-dry California eases restrictions on greywater use, allowing wastewater from washing machines and bathtubs to spill onto the state’s lawns and lemon trees.

Plagued by drought and homeowner recalcitrance, California building officials last summer relaxed the rules for greywater use, allowing residents to hook up their washing machines to garden hoses without a permit … because they were doing it anyway.

On Aug. 4, the California Building Standards Commission effectively caught up with an eco-revolution that began here 20 years ago during the last drought. In 1989, the County of Santa Barbara became the first agency in the United States to change its building codes and legalize the use of household greywater — the slightly dirty wastewater from washing machines, bathtubs, showers and bathroom sinks — to irrigate backyard plants and trees. By 1992, the practice was legal in most western states, including California.

There was just one problem. Homeowners were installing greywater systems themselves without permits, or they hired plumbers who looked the other way. Over 20 years in Santa Barbara, city officials say, only four residents ever obtained greywater permits, much less paid the fees, set at $350 today. Meanwhile, hundreds, if not thousands, embraced do-it-yourself “laundry-to-landscape” diversions, bought biodegradable soap, connected their washers to outside tubes — if you actually hook it up to  garden hose you can expect a burnt-out pump before long — and emptied buckets of bath water in their yards.

The Greywater Guerrillas, a Bay Area group that billed itself as part of the “Water Underground,” helped spread the know-how, and by 1999, according to a survey by the Soap and Detergent Association, nearly 14 percent of California homeowners were using greywater in their backyards. Today, that would be about 1.7 million households operating largely under the radar of city and county building inspectors. That growth is reflected in the Guerillas’ name, which has changed to Greywater Action.

“August 4th was California Greywater Liberation Day,” said Art Ludwig, a Santa Barbara pioneer of greywater systems who was hired by the city this year to lobby for the permit exemption. “It’s the poster child for reforming the building code to a new way of doing things. You have to trust people more: There’s no way around it.”

Doug Hensel, who supervised the drafting of the new standards as assistant deputy director of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, believes they will help bring greywater use into the mainstream. The state estimates that a family of four could save up to 22,000 gallons of water per year by diverting laundry water alone.

“We’re hoping it catches on,” Hensel said. “It’s pretty neat.”

The new rules went into effect for 180 days as an emergency measure in the third year of a serious drought. They are subject to a 45-day period of public comment and are expected to return to the building commission for final action in mid-November.

Greywater Do’s and Don’ts:

Do:

* Frequently check your plants for evidence of over watering or damage from organic material in greywater.

* Use greywater only for flood or drip irrigation.

* Divert greywater to your sewer or septic system if you are laundering diapers or dyeing clothes.

* Structure your irrigation system so it doesn’t waste water by letting it percolate beyond the root zone.

* Use PVC or ABS piping.

Don’t:

* Drink your greywater!

* Reuse water that contains hazardous chemicals from photo labs, car parts or oily rags.

* Allow your greywater to pond because it can increase health risks and provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

* Reuse greywater for spray irrigation.

* Irrigate root or leaf crops (such as carrots or lettuce) that you’ll eat.

* Reuse greywater if family members suffer from infectious diseases, such as diarrhea, hepatitis or internal parasites.

Source: Arizona Department of Environmental Quality

Building officials, plumbing unions and representatives for a number of California cities opposed lifting the mandatory permit requirement for household greywater systems, saying homeowners could make mistakes out of ignorance. Some city and county officials told the commission they would recommend that their agencies pass ordinances to restore the permit requirement if the state changed the rules.

“I think people are really dismissing the health risks of greywater systems a little cavalierly,” said Tom Enslow, an attorney for the California State Pipe Trades Council, representing union plumbers and pipe fitters.

But the move toward more lenience had the support of the state Department of Public Health and such diverse groups as the California Building Industry Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmentalist group. There is no documented case of greywater ever making anyone sick.

Specifically, the new standards allow homeowners to use up to 250 gallons of greywater per day on their landscaping without a permit, if they follow a list of 12 do’s and don’ts. Arizona set the national precedent for relaxed greywater rules in 2001, and New Mexico and Texas soon followed suit.

“Finally, California is catching up; it does my heart good,” said Val Little, executive director of the Water Conservation Alliance of Southern Arizona, a consortium of water districts, cities and state and county agencies that studied the potential risk of greywater use in the 1990s and concluded it was safe.

Today, Arizona offers up to $1,000 in tax credits to homeowners who install greywater systems. And beginning in June 2010, all new commercial buildings in Tucson must be plumbed to allow for future greywater hookups, with separate pipes to collect greywater from washing machines, showers, bathroom sinks and tubs.

“Greywater should be viewed as a very important source of water,” Little said. “It just makes common sense. People are not going to mess in their own nests.”

Greywater reuse is low-tech and cheap compared to recycling “black water” from toilets, kitchen sinks and dishwashers. Sewage recycling requires expensive treatment to meet drinking water standards; the purified water must be pumped back into the ground or the local reservoir, then back into homes. And black water destined for agricultural use still requires treatment, as Miller-McCune reported during the summer.

The California permit exemption for greywater reuse applies to small-scale projects in residential buildings only. Gone are the requirements for soils percolation tests and burial of irrigation lines under nine inches of dirt. Two inches of mulch covering the lines is now acceptable. Homeowners are not allowed to divert black water, including washing machine water that has been used to wash dirty diapers. Homeowners may not spray greywater on the ground, where it could form smelly puddles.

Greywater is not safe to drink, but any pathogens or organic material in it are quickly broken down and used up in the topsoil. Greywater can be safely used to irrigate ornamental plants and fruit trees but not root crops.

Water conservationists today talk about the benefits of “cascading” water quality — the notion that drinking water should flow to the bathtub and, once used, from there to the backyard, carrying nutrients to ornamental plants and fruit trees.

“People will realize that they can use less water and have the same lifestyle if they use the water twice,” said Larry Farwell, a water efficiency consultant who, as a Goleta Water District employee, pushed for the legalization of greywater in Santa Barbara County in 1989.

In some western states, the idea has not yet caught on. Greywater advocates in Nevada tried this year but failed to reform the law to allow for household greywater use, bucking strong opposition from the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The water authority recycles all of Las Vegas’s household water, and it gets one gallon of Colorado River water from Lake Mead for every gallon of recycled water it puts back in.

“We can stretch our allocation by more than two-thirds,” said Scott Huntley, a water authority spokesman. “We didn’t want the legislation to potentially harm that system.”

But Launce Rake, a spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a coalition of 25 union, environmental and social service organizations, said that easing the rules for greywater use would save on major energy costs. The water authority presently must pump recycled water to Lake Mead and back uphill to Las Vegas.

“We have a responsibility to use water efficiently,” Rake said. “We could be doing so much better in Las Vegas.”

Back in California, Greywater Action with its name change has also become a nonprofit group. Laura Allen, a co-founder who lives in Oakland, has quit her job as an elementary schoolteacher to work full-time as a greywater educator.

“It’s a really wonderful and positive change for California, looking towards a future of being more sustainable with our water use,” Allen said. “Cities and counties will be able to promote it.”

In Santa Barbara, nearly 300 people packed into greywater workshops conducted this summer by Ludwig, the greywater pioneer, and they watched a portion of his new how-to DVD. Ludwig told the audience that California was going back to its roots — just look at the old stone fountain and wash basin in front of the “Queen of the Missions” in Santa Barbara, he said. The historic record notes that Indians washed and scrubbed their clothes on the sloping bricks of the basin in the early 1800s, and that water running out of the basin went on to irrigate the fields.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.