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The Man Who Has Been Giving a Boost to the Greywater Movement

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

 
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