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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.

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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.

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