Menus Subscribe Search

Greywater Dominoes

• October 13, 2009 • 4:45 PM

As Californians start looking seriously at using greywater for home irrigation, all roads — or pipes — lead to Art Ludwig.

In the mountains above Santa Barbara, Calif., streams run nearly dry for much of the year. The one running through an area known as the San Marcos Trout Club, however, is a bit different. Even in the dry heat of summer, deep pools of cool water swirl in their sandstone basins as it wends through the little nook on its way to the ocean.

For Art Ludwig, founder of Oasis Design — a family-run ecological design company covering everything from water delivery and disposal to permaculture — the spot is more than just a peaceful getaway and outdoor office near his home; it provides inspiration when he is cooking up ecological solutions and designing small-scale water systems. “Most of what I’ve learned has been synthesized in the wilderness,” he said. “The most ecological solution is the most economical.”

Finding enough fresh water has always been a challenge for lawmakers and engineers alike in the arid American West. With an ever-increasing population and dwindling mountain snowpack — the spring melts of which supply the lion’s share of water to Western rivers — water resources have become stretched thin.

According to the National Drought Mitigation Center’s Drought Monitor, most Western states are currently experiencing drought conditions of varying severity, and have been for most of the past decade. While in the past those who guide policy have relied upon creative outsourcing by water officials, overtaxed reservoirs and river systems have caused them to look more toward conservation as a way to ensure that their constituents continue to receive clean, reliable water at their taps.

Although nothing new, diverting greywater — water from washing machines, showers and sinks containing far less bacteria than the funky brew toilets and kitchen sinks emit — for irrigation has become one of the primary tools in a growing arsenal of conservation methods being examined. Although concern has been raised about the health effects of using greywater to water plants, the California Department of Public Health does not have any cases of greywater-related contamination on record.

“The most dangerous thing you can do with greywater is stir a bunch of feces into it and overload a septic or sewer system,” said Ludwig, adding that sewage treatment systems operating over capacity often dump untreated effluent into waterways.

Already in place in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Montana, Nevada and other Western states, standards spelling out how best to use water were also passed by the California Building Standards Commission on Aug. 4. Although California state Sen. Alan Lowenthal had already developed a set of greywater standards, a fourth year of statewide drought prompted the California Department of Housing and Community Development to push for emergency greywater standards at the Building Standards Commission.

“The reason we did the emergency standards is because in February, [Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger] declared a drought situation and directed departments to do whatever they could to enable water conservation,” said Doug Hensel, deputy director of Housing and Community Development. The result was an intense series of meetings with stakeholder groups that helped shape the standards that were finally adopted in August. “The average person wouldn’t know that much about [installing greywater systems], so we made [the standard] kind of like a recipe to follow.”

By all accounts a vast improvement over the limited standards California had before this year, Ludwig nonetheless looked to Arizona’s laissez-faire greywater rules — in place since 2001 — calling it the model to emulate. The desert state’s user-friendly two-page brochure makes it easy for homeowners to figure out how to use greywater safely, without impinging upon how they go about designing their systems.

Ludwig also advised New Mexico officials when they adopted standards similar to Arizona’s in 2003.

“Every site is different, and so are people’s [water usage] habits,” said Daniel Wilson, a Santa Barbara-based landscape designer who has begun installing greywater diversion systems in conjunction with fruit tree planting. Despite California’s relatively late entry into simplified greywater regulation, some 1.7 million greywater systems are already installed in homes across the state —there are nearly 8 million nationwide — and until recently, only 200 of them were legally permitted.

“It [was] an abstinence-only greywater system. It pushed people to do it illegally,” said Ludwig, who stressed that while permitting is unnecessary for simple diversion systems, standards are important to ensure proper use and installation.

His Web site notes the difficulty of challenging the status quo and remaining street legal — on one page he writes: “The more ecologically you live, the more illegal it is.” And for that reason he provides both code-friendly information for prospective practitioners and a series of ideas for making end-runs around recalcitrant bureaucrats.

“State guidelines were very complicated and turned a lot of people off. People found that the standards were too difficult to deal with,” said Laura Allen, a member of Oakland-based Greywater Action, a group heavily involved in the stakeholder process that got California’s revised standards off the ground.

Now, as in many other Western states, California homeowners with greywater systems diverting washing machine effluent to irrigate onsite trees do not require a permit. This is where Ludwig and others experienced in building greywater systems come in, providing vast informational resources for existing and would-be greywater users. Not as simple as collecting laundry water in a bucket to pour on a garden, only certain types of plants — mostly fruit trees and flowers, but not vegetables such as carrots and lettuce — can benefit from greywater irrigation.

It also requires that homeowners, if they weren’t already doing so, use biodegradable laundry soap, as traditional soaps would harm the plants. “As long as you’re using the right products, [greywater irrigation] makes a lot of sense,” said Allen, who has been using greywater on her kiwi and apricot trees and berry bushes for a decade.

On the whole, greywater use seems to have attracted a passionate group of individuals, and a wealth of information is available for both do-it-yourselfers and those who are simply curious.

When it comes to greywater, all roads on the information highway lead to Ludwig, who has been researching and designing the uses and impacts of greywater for nearly 20 years.

“Greywater is part of a system that would allow us to exist on 90 percent less resources,” he said, explaining that his work reflects a belief that water use is connected to a number of other things, including energy use and ocean water quality. Transporting water over hundreds of miles and even pumping it over a mountain range, the State Water Project is California’s single most prolific user of energy, consuming about three percent of all the electricity used in the state, by EPA estimates. (The National Resources Defense Council puts that figure significantly higher, at 20 percent).

“This issue lies across the fault line of two world views. One is build it up to code and it’s ok, and the other is to look at water depletion and climate change as well — the big picture,” Ludwig said.

In a dilapidated trailer next to their house, Ludwig and his college-age daughter, Maya, usually aided by an intern or two, work tirelessly to compile videos, pictures, and new data for their seemingly endless Web site. From the mountainside vantage point of these cramped quarters — which are perennially cluttered with charts, official documents, and the odd bowl of fruit — the distant Pacific Ocean is visible through a couple of small windows, reminding them how connected everything really is.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Ben Preston
Ben Preston is a 2011 graduate of the masters in journalism program at Columbia University. Before that, he was a staff reporter for the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based news website, Noozhawk.com, and has covered Western water and forest issues as well as local and state politics. In 2009, he traveled to Iraq to cover the U.S. Army 425th Civil Affairs Battalion, which was running reconstruction programs in Baghdad.

More From Ben Preston

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

Recent Posts

July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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