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A Victory for the 'Water Underground': California Eases Restrictions on Greywater Use

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.
 
 
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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.

 
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