My dad is a very law-abiding man, but since yesterday’s gray water story, I discovered that in the mid 1970s, he ran “a hose or tubing or something” out the bathroom drain into a tank in the back yard of our Menlo Park home, so he could water plants. He was breaking the law.
“I don’t know whose idea it was,” he said. “Everybody was rigging things up. If someone had told me it was illegal, I would have told them I thought it was illegal to waste water.”
At the time, it was illegal to reuse water that flowed through bathroom sinks, showers and washing machines because of health concerns. That prohibition has since been lifted (though it's still illegal to use gray water from a kitchen sink).
The point of this story is: it’s really hard to know how much water we've been saving through methods like gray water, because what people do in their yards, they don't always discuss with others. It’s also really hard to know who’s doing well at saving gray water, as long as what people do is so different from what the code provides.
Some people are trying to change that. Tracy Quinn, at the Natural Resources Defense Council, is researching what the rules are all around the country. And around the world. Australia apparently puts us to shame. Over 50% of homes there use gray water and rainwater for flushing toilets or watering lawns.
Even if we can’t be Australian, Quinn told me some amazing stuff about water recycling opportunities generally in the United States.
“Over 50% of the water we use indoors can be considered gray water. And fifty percent of total household use in a single family home is landscaping,” she said. “So gray water, which is more than half of the water that we are flushing away and sending to our sewers, can be used for two of our biggest demands.”
But if you want to model your gray water rules on something, sounds like Arizona is the place. There, the state has updated its general permit for reclaimed water, so that Arizonans don’t have to apply for permits for simple gray water systems as long as they follow a list of 13 best practices.
And in Tucson, they’re actually requiring that newly-constructed single family homes be dually plumbed to capture gray water. (There’s a fat rebate too.)
I’m guessing we haven’t seen the end of changes to the California Plumbing Code yet.