The Oakland Tribune (CA) – July 12, 2008
Author: Francine Brevetti, Oakland Tribune
With the statewide drought upsetting homeowners who cling to their gardens and lawns, the concept of “gray water” irrigation systems is enjoying a kind of revival in interest.
“Whereas we used to get one or two requests a year about gray water before the drought, now we get about one inquiry a day,” said Dick Bennett, water conservation administrator for East Bay Municipal Utility District. EBMUD supplies brochures and guidelines on how to install gray water systems.
The concept, pioneered in part by Oakland’s Greywater Guerrillas a decade ago, has been hampered by the state’s restrictive building codes — but it looks as though the barriers that have prevented easy installation of these systems may be coming down in the near future.
The systems — which use water from sinks, tubs and washing machines to irrigate home landscaping — are touted as a way to keep lawns green and flowers blooming without abusing a scarce resource or inflating water bills.
Greywater Guerrillas launched its first jerry-rigged experiments with gray water in 1999, when the original guerrillas were trying to reduce the water bill for their house of six roommates. The systems and devices have become much more sophisticated since then, said Laura Allen, an educator with Greywater Guerrillas.
Gray water systems channel the used household water (though not from toilets) to irrigation ducts 9 inches below the surface of a home’s lawn or garden. Advocates say it’s a practical use of water that otherwise would go into the sewer system, and therefore an expedient means of conservation. And conservation is important as water becomes an increasingly valued resource, proponents say.
“Our water bill is going to be like our oil bill in the future,” said John Russell, a landscape designer who heads WaterSprout, an Oakland company that specializes in residential and commercial irrigation, including gray water systems.
However, the building codes in California — and every state except Arizona, for that matter — spell out very restrictive (translation: expensive) specifications for gray water systems. So most people who install them have been skirting the law and installing the systems without permits.
“Today, there are hundreds of non-permitted gray water systems in the Bay Area, but only a handful of legal ones,” Allen said. Still, there is no evidence inspectors are shutting these projects down, she said.
Russell, however, is trying to convince his clients to install such systems legally because he said he’s trying to gain acceptance for the concept and legitimize the process. So far he has installed four permitted systems. He does not install non-permitted systems, he said.
Larry and Tam Gray of Berkeley are among Russell’s clients. They recently had a system installed in their new home’s front and back yards. The Grays are proud their house is the second permitted gray water system in Berkeley, they said.
Depending on the size and slope of the property, Russell said, a permitted system can cost $4,000 to $6,000 more than the cost of a typical irrigation system, including permitting and plumbing. Depending on the property, the lowest a basic irrigation system costs $8,000 to $9,000, he said.
Non-permitted systems, on the other hand, cost only hundreds of dollars, advocates said.
According to Russell, a family of four consumes about 36,000 gallons of gray water a year on average. “Since gray water accounts for 75 percent of total household usage,” he added, “you can expect your water bill to drop at once.”
No businesses are known to use gray water. Some of them, however, use reclaimed water from waste treatment plants and recycle it into their cooling towers when and if they need to cool overheated tools or equipment, EBMUD’s Bennett said. Official objections to the gray water method of irrigation for houses have stemmed from fears of its being unhygienic — fears that Allen and Russell called baseless.
“As long as the edible parts of the plant are above ground, there should be no problem,” Russell said.
So that would mean the systems should not be used to water root plants — carrots and potatoes, for instance — or at least no there should be no contact between the edible part and the gray water tubing.
Recently there’s been a considerable push from activists, environmentalists and real estate developers to change legislation to allow more relaxed standards for gray water systems. The state Senate and Assembly have both passed legislation to this effect and their versions need only to be harmonized in order to be ratified.
“The Department of Housing and Community Development will give another look at standards and see if they have to be relaxed,” said Carrie Cornwell, chief consultant for the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.
This takes time, of course.
“The guerrilla gray water movement in the Bay Area will not be legalized in a year,” Cornwell cautioned. In two years then?
“Perhaps,” she said.
For more information, contact Dick Bennett, water conservation administrator for East Bay Municipal Utility District, at 510-287-0597.