Drought: Our homes could be recycling gray water right now—why aren't they?

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I love doing laundry at my little house. I can walk out my kitchen door a dozen steps to a stacked washer dryer in a shed round the back. I love the hollow, vibrating sound of the water outside my bedroom window, rushing out at the end of the wash cycle.

That water contains soap, maybe some bacteria, hair, or lint, but it’s good enough to water outdoor plants. Laundry water is the most common type of what's known as "gray water" — basically any used household water that doesn't flow through toilets and kitchen sinks. In most homes, including mine, it disappears down the drain.

People who’ve lived through California drought before remember the old bucket in the shower trick – a way to save lightly used water for your plants. Gray water plumbing systems can do this better. But while California had the first law on the books permitting home water recycling, homeowners have been slow to adopt it.

A committed network of do-it-yourselfers has worked over 15 years to change that. In that time, some of the former road blocks to recycling water at home have become speed bumps. Smooth out the road to gray water, these conservationists say, and there’s plenty of opportunity to save water fast. 

The activists

Greywater Action founder Laura Allen has been working on recycling water at home since the days when doing so was basically illegal. Which wasn’t that long ago. The California Plumbing Code has technically allowed gray water reuse since 1994.  But until a few years ago, a system was cost prohibitive to install, as much as $7,000.

A change in state law five years back allowed people to put in basic gray water capture systems for a few hundred dollars. These laundry-to-landscape systems now require no inspections or permits.

It’s nearly impossible to track how many home water recycling systems exist in California. But in the 2009 UCLA Institute of the Environment regional report card, Yoram Cohen writes that if just 10 percent of Southern California homes reused their gray water, that savings would equal the output of a desalination plant.

Through lobbying and raising public awareness, Greywater Action's Laura Allen says she and her cohorts have seen progress in Northern California. San Francisco’s Municipal Utilities District puts out a handbook for gray water.  In Santa Rosa,  officials offer rebates and will come to your home to help you plan your own system.

Now activists have their eyes trained on the thirsty south.

“When your water comes from really far away, there’s no need in people's mind to be aware. And no one's forcing you to be aware of what’s going on with these water sources. It takes more education,” Allen says.

Greywater Action's Laura Allen explains a laundry-to-landscape system

The homeowners

Part of Allen’s workshop requires people to match pieces of plumbing with their proper name – so shopping the aisles of Home Depot can be easier.

The Ferrari family from Upland, Calif., all give it a shot on a recent Saturday at the Los Angeles Eco-Village. They came to learn how to reuse their laundry water. Margie Ferrari, in particular, was animated as she talked about using the water to help nurture her pine trees. (Gray water can only be used for outdoor trees and plants. For health reasons, it cannot be used for lawns and root vegetables.)

“I’m always reducing and reusing and reclaiming and re-gifting and every word like that," she said. "The idea that we could reuse water that’s just going into our septic tank, that’s very exciting.”

RELATED: Does my community have water restrictions? 

The Ferraris went home with some sketches and plans for a shower water recycling system. They eventually want to capture all their available gray water, but installing the needed plumbing on bathroom sinks and showers requires a permit. Officials in Upland told her nobody’s ever applied for one before. 

"I'm going to take this to our local branch and say, people are doing this," she said. 

Builders and plumbers

The Ferraris' story underscores one of the main impediments to wider adoption of gray water systems: the complexity of state rules that govern them and the ability of local building officials to apply them. 

Architect and consultant Leigh Jerrard says the state code for gray water was written with the help of the traditional plumbing industry. “Gray water violates the essential plumber’s creed, which is that there’s supply and there’s waste and never the twain shall meet," he said. 

The rules are getting easier to follow, and cities, including Los Angeles, are helping. In the L.A. Department of Building and Safety, Osama Younan oversees gray water permits for the Green Building Division. He says he understands that the permit process can seem intimidating. So the city’s trying to help with standardized forms. 

“For example, you want to take your shower water and put it in your garden,” he said. “So you have a standard plan, you fill it out, and you do it right over the counter.”

That still leaves plenty of work for consultants like Leigh Jarrard. He obtains permits and helps homeowners capture all the gray water possible. These days, he says he’s “pretty busy.”

The health officials…and the future

One of the people he’s helped is Mount Washington homeowner Mark Vallianatos, who recently showed me the maintenance he has to do for his sizable gray water system.

“It’s nasty,” he said as he cleaned the filter-sock that traps solids before they hit the irrigation lines. “But you get proof, that something’s coming out of your house and going into the gray water system.”

His house sits atop a steep hill, and Vallianatos uses his gray water on fruit trees below. On his road to recycled water, Vallianatos met with one of the speed bumps to gray water: health concerns.

Health officials, lawmakers and plumbers harbor a fear that do-it-your-selfers and non-traditional plumbers will inadvertently mix gray water with drinkable water. A health inspector made Vallianatos’ contractor redo part of his installation.

"He had to paint on the side of this weird little plastic tank on my hillside, ‘NOT POTABLE WATER – DO NOT DRINK.’ Which seems sort of ridiculous because no one’s looking, snooping around."

L.A. County health officials say they’ve approved 30 or 40 of these more complex gray water systems since the state changed the code. But L.A. County’s director of environmental health, Angelo Bellomo, acknowledges there’s a sea change in thinking underway.

"Our goal in the past has been protect potable water supply," he said. "But we have to keep in mind there are two public health goals here today, in view of the impending water crisis in the future. We have to be concerned not only about water quality but also about water availability."

Vallianatos likes the sound of that. He’s the kind of guy who’s doing everything he can to understand his water supply. He wants state and local agencies to help other people do that also.

"It’s something you can look at, you can touch," he said, surveying his hillside. "It kind of connects you to your surroundings better than if everything is in city pipes. So I like it for that reason too."

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