New watering source is surfacing
'Gray' users go with flow from bathtubs, washers
2:00 a.m. March 23, 2009
But it hasn't been enough. Water officials still plan to start rationing by summer.
Faced with having lawns wither and shrubs shrivel, more people are tapping their washing machines, bathtubs and other sources of “gray water” to irrigate landscaping.
Dadla Ponizil of Encinitas is one resident trying to squeeze the most out of every drop. In late February, he hosted a workshop where 15 people watched the Oakland-based group Greywater Guerrillas renovate his home so the washing machine drains to the blackberry patch in his front yard.
“Pretty soon, it will be the exception not to do this,” said Ponizil, a contractor and building consultant. “We can't keep using water once and dumping it.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that interest in gray water is growing in California. With direction from the Legislature, state regulators are looking at whether to loosen permit requirements for installing such systems.
Gray water includes wastewater from showers, bathtubs, bathroom sinks, laundry tubs and washing machines, but not from toilets, kitchen sinks or dishwashers. The latter sources typically have high bacterial content, making them unsuitable for irrigation.
A typical home produces more than 45,000 gallons of gray water annually, according to ReWater Systems, a Chula Vista firm that specializes in high-end water reuse projects.
The vast majority of gray water systems in California don't have permits, making it difficult to quantify the phenomenon. State rules and local permitting requirements for using gray water are complicated and costly to follow, so most residents don't file the paperwork.
“You would be hard-pressed to find a law that is as widely flaunted,” said Art Ludwig, an ecology consultant in Santa Barbara. His Web site, oasisdesign.net, offers gray water tips and project plans.
Ludwig estimates that California has 1.8 million gray water systems.
The state's continued drought has prompted a new look at its gray water rules, which are administered by cities and counties. California's housing agency recently started rewriting the regulations in hopes of having new standards in place by 2011. The efforts include reviewing how other states manage gray water.
Arizona allows gray water for above-ground drip irrigation, and it generally doesn't mandate individual permits for single-family homes with those systems.
“Obviously, we want to do things that are safe,” said Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who pushed for updating California's rules in hopes of curbing the amount of potable water used for landscaping. “But we believe it's time to review those standards so that water can be recycled and go from shower to flower.”
Eventually, he said, gray water systems may be required for new homes and residents could choose whether to use them.
One question is whether California will continue to permit only gray water irrigation systems that are underground. The restriction was designed to eliminate human contact with the water.
“(But) it's very expensive to build a system 9 inches underground, and it's not useful,” Lowenthal said. “You can't water your flower bed like that.”
Demand for potable water could drop by 50 percent for households using gray water, according to a 2006 study published by the Water Environment Research Foundation, a major scientific group in Alexandria, Va. It said gray water from a 2,500-square-foot home could irrigate about half of the drought-tolerant plants on a lot of 11,000 square feet.
The simplest type of gray water system connects to washing machines, which use 15 to 50 gallons per load. Typically, these appliances are located near an outside wall with drain hoses that can be easily removed from the sewage system.
“It's a very, very low risk and it's very high leverage in terms of conservation,” said Laura Allen of Oakland, co-founder of the Greywater Guerrillas.
County officials said it's illegal to divert washing-machine effluent for landscape irrigation without obtaining a permit, which involves filing detailed documents, submitting soil percolation data and completing an inspection.
“Gray water is untreated wastewater that has the potential to contain high levels of bacteria,” said Tom Lambert at the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health, which regulates gray water in the region. “Our first and foremost objective is to see that it is used in a way that will not create any public health risks.”
His database shows 41 permitted gray water systems countywide, but he acknowledges that unpermitted ones are widespread. Lambert said county agents don't go looking for renegade users.
Scientists said gray water's effects on human health and the environment are unclear. The product can contain a complex mixture of chemicals from soaps, detergents and other sources.
At Colorado State University, researchers are assessing how gray water affects residential landscapes. Their analysis of the Southwest includes a yard in Escondido.
“Regulators have not had a good set of scientific data to make science-based decisions,” said Larry Roesner, one of the study's coordinators.
Lack of research hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of people like Thomas Weller, an auto mechanic from El Cajon.
Weller drains his washing machine into a 55-gallon plastic drum that's placed on a cart. Then he wheels the container around his yard and waters his plants.
Weller started the system about 10 years ago to conserve money and water.
“I am not paying for fresh water to water my grass and roses,” he said. “I am using the water I already paid for.”
Weller's operation isn't up to code, but he doesn't care.
Ponizil, the Encinitas resident, also has no qualms talking publicly about his two unpermitted systems.
“We are a step away from water rationing, so now I want to help people deal with it,” he said. By embracing gray water, Ponizil said, “I don't think you have to sacrifice at all to live with 20 percent less (potable) water.”
About eight years ago, Ponizil started using water from his shower – about 35 gallons every time he lathered up – to irrigate fruit and nut trees. Last month, he spent about $150 for the system that drains into his blackberry patch.
In La Jolla, gray water guru Steve Bilson is installing a high-end system for a sprawling property on Mount Soledad. Gray water from the mansion will be pumped through an underground irrigation system to irrigate an expansive grass playfield.
Bilson said his company, ReWater, is the only one in California that sells legally permitted gray water systems, which usually cost roughly $8,000.
“In this last year, I have been busier than I ever have been in my life times 10,” he said. “The average person is starting to understand that maybe we don't have enough water.”
Staff writer Michael Gardner contributed to this report.