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Grey water in the Bay Area

Article written about the new law change on Graywater all over the bay area. Including Contra Costa County, East Bay, North Bay, Marin County, South Bay, Santa Clara County, and the Peninsula.

The Goods on Graywater
Written by Deia de Brito Friday, 31 July 2009 22:18

In California, we are in the third year of a drought that has now risen to levels deemed “severe” by the state government. Precipitation, run-off, snow packs, and reservoirs are low, while water resources have been over-allocated. That’s why everybody’s talking about water conservation — from efficient showerheads, low-flush toilets, and limits on lawn-watering, to wastewater reclamation and rainwater catchment. One of the recent victories for the water conservation community has been the rewriting of an antiquated and draconian state plumbing code that dealt with the reuse of graywater.

Since state Senator Alan Lowenthal authored SB 1258 in July of 2008, stakeholders have convened several times in Sacramento to come up with a more user-friendly revision that eliminates the code’s difficult and expensive permit requirements. Because of the governor’s February 27, 2009 drought emergency declaration urging urban water users to cut consumption by 20 percent, the revised code was fast-tracked into effect — approved by the California Building Standards Commission on July 30 and implemented shortly thereafter, two years ahead of schedule.

Graywater is wastewater from bathtubs, showers, bathroom sinks, and washing machines that has not been contaminated by toilet water, bodily waste, or harmful chemicals. The average American uses about 100 gallons of potable (drinking quality) water each day — accounting for the highest residential water consumption in the world. By reusing graywater, a person can reduce the amount of potable water he or she uses by 50 to 80 percent.

There are no documented cases of anybody getting sick from graywater, but California’s graywater law has made it nearly impossible for ordinary people to reuse graywater without breaking the law. Reasons for the code’s strict requirements include health departments and building officials’ concerns over direct exposure to graywater and the possibility of graywater surfacing and running off into neighboring yards and streams. However, research has shown that graywater, if applied properly, is a time-tested and safe method of irrigating gardens and lawns, which account for 80 percent of residential water use.

The result of the state’s cumbersome graywater code has been telling: in California, there are an estimated 8,000 un-permitted systems for every permitted system. Graywater experts say there are 200 permitted systems in the state. Laura Allen, co-founder of the Greywater Guerrillas — a graywater advocacy group specializing in do-it-yourself systems — and co-editor and author of Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground, has played a major role in the proliferation of illegal systems, which amount to well over a million in the state. After graduating as an environmental science major at UC Berkeley 10 years ago, the fact that she didn’t know where her water came from or where it went began to drive her crazy, so she enrolled in a basic plumbing class. She detached the sink drains and flushed the toilet with sink water and began draining her shower water into her backyard garden. Later, she built composting toilets to further extricate herself from the water grid.

Today, the Guerrillas teach sliding-scale workshops in which people actually get to install simple, low-tech graywater systems in someone’s home. The total cost of all the supplies needed adds up to no more than $150. The old code required that all systems be high-tech — replete with filters, pumps, and tanks — and buried at least nine inches underground. As a result, a legal system can range in cost from about $2,500 to $4,500. With the costs of permits, inspections, geotechnical studies of groundwater levels, soil percolation tests, and professional plans, the total cost can add up to $20,000.

The new code will allow homeowners to install single fixture systems (which collect graywater from one plumbing fixture) as well as clothes washer systems without obtaining permits, as long as they follow 12 simple requirements, such as the prohibition of ponding or run-off and the disposal of home waste products. In general, graywater users should use all natural products that do not contain boron or salts and install a two-way valve than can divert water to the sewer if needed.

Allen, who has been participating in the stakeholder’s meetings in Sacramento, believes the new code will allow cities, water districts, and organizations to promote and provide workshops on simple, low-tech systems. People won’t feel like they have to hide it, she said. And professionals, who have long been burdened by the requirements for legal systems and often denied permits, will be able to install such systems.

Before 1992, there was no mention of graywater in California’s plumbing code. All wastewater from homes was to be disposed of by sewer or septic tank. But during droughts in the 1970s and 80s, Santa Barbara residents began finding makeshift ways to reuse their graywater as a way to save water — filling up buckets with shower water, reusing dishwater. In 1987, the city became the first in the nation to legalize and create graywater standards. Several other cities and counties in California followed suit, but there lacked a statewide set of regulations. And despite local attempts to introduce graywater reuse, regulations were so inaccessible that according to Art Ludwig — graywater historian, inventor, and author of Create an Oasis with Graywater — in Santa Barbara, only 10 systems have been granted permits in the past 20 years.

In 1992, AB 3518 (Sher) directed the Department of Water Resources to write a statewide irrigation code as part of the California Plumbing Code. As the result of AB 313 (McDonald), the code was revised in 1997 to include multifamily, commercial, and institutional buildings in the reuse of graywater. But since the beginning, health officials were focused on the public health risks of graywater reuse, and local governments were afraid of liability.

“I originally wanted the code to be rational enough for normal people to be able to obtain a permit,” said ReWater Systems designer Steve Bilson, who sponsored both assembly bills. “There’s always been this bias that graywater is dangerous. The science just does not prove that.”

Bilson lives in San Diego, which he says is one of the least water conservative cities on the planet. For three and a half years, he has been trying to obtain a permit for a residential graywater system, and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.

Applicants in the Bay Area have not necessarily had it any easier. “I would still consider it to be very difficult to obtain a permit in Northern California,” said John Russell, landscape architect and founder of WaterSprout, which specializes in graywater and rainwater catchment systems installation. “Up until very recently San Francisco was not permitting systems period. Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto, and Marin have been somewhat receptive. All of Contra Costa County has been very anti-graywater.” Despite the difficulty in graywater permitting and the recent struggles of the landscaping industry, WaterSprout has been so successful in the past year and a half that Russell installs almost exclusively graywater and rainwater catchment systems. Russell recently began his first commercial installation job installing a rainwater catchment system on Alcatraz Island to water its historic gardens without barging potable water over from San Francisco.

When Arizona became the first state to create what Art Ludwig calls a “graywater revolution” in 2001 — granting general permits to all residential graywater systems that do not exceed 400 gallons per day as long as they follow 13 simple rules — graywater reuse became a more acceptable conservation measure. The Arizona model — followed by New Mexico, Texas, Montana, and Nevada — sparked a movement among environmentalists to rethink California’s graywater code, and provided a successful example for the state to consider.

“Before it was legal, 13 percent — about 35,000 households — of single family homeowners in southern Arizona were already using graywater. We know that percentage has grown,” said Val Little, executive director of Water Conservation Alliance of Southern Arizona (Water CASA), a consortium of water providers and users that initiated research into graywater reuse 11 years ago. The overwhelming number of illegal systems pressured water providers to revise the code.

In 2004, Water CASA worked with legislators to implement a tax credit program as an incentive for homeowners to install graywater systems. “Last year, Tucson implemented a requirement that all new single family households built after July of 2010 be plumbed to capture graywater. Other towns are doing the same thing,” said Little. “Within the next year or two, I think there will be a national policy for graywater.”

In early 2008, Carrie Cornwell, chief consultant for the state Senate’s Transportation and Housing Committee at Senator Lowenthal’s office, pushed for the revision of California’s graywater code. “The Department of Water Resources said they didn’t have the resources or the money. That would have killed the bill,” said Cornwell. “My feeling is that they care about really big supply issues when it comes to water, and graywater is not a really big supply issue.” The Department of Housing and Community Development, which has been developing green building standards, agreed to take over the graywater code for residential landscape irrigation from the Department of Water Resources.

“The big difference is that the old code was written as a disposal code,” said Bilson. “We needed an irrigation code.” The first graywater code was written with the preservation of septic tanks in mind as well as the diversion of water from the sewage system, focusing on disposal rather than reuse through landscape irrigation. According to John Russell, the old code was adopted directly from the septic code, which requires water to settle into a gravel trench 17 inches underground. “For septic systems, you want to get rid of the water and make sure it doesn’t surface at all, but with graywater, we actually want it to stick around,” said Russell. The subsurface drip irrigation system — considered the best option for irrigation under the old code — requires a depth of nine inches, as well as filters, tanks, and pumps to prevent clogging. But most of the microbial ecosystems that filter graywater are in the top six to eight inches of soil.

The revision to the code makes graywater installation a lot easier and cheaper by permitting water tubing to be placed only two inches under mulch, rock, or soil. “Mulch is much more garden-friendly material because it breaks down into compost and it provides nutrients over time, whereas gravel just sits there and provides no nutrients to the landscape,” said Russell.

“At EBMUD, 65 percent of water is used for residential use,” said Dick Bennett, water conservation specialist at the East Bay Municipal Utility District — the water provider that serves 1.3 million people in 22 cities in the counties of Alameda and Contra Costa. “We’ve offered incentives for graywater reuse, but we’ve only had 10 systems over the last 15 years — it’s way too expensive,” said Bennett. “Under the new regulations, we can offer incentives to non-permitted systems.”

But the new code clearly states that jurisdictions “may, after a public hearing and enactment of an ordinance or resolution, further restrict or prohibit the use of graywater systems.” Even San Francisco — now taking the lead on water recycling, stormwater management, and rainwater catchment — could be taking up a stricter interpretation of the state graywater code. Michael Mitchell, senior plumbing inspector with the San Francisco Plumbing Inspection Division, says the city is discussing amendments to the new code that will require permits for all systems, even single-fixture systems and washing machine systems. The main concerns lie with alteration of piping and potential open sewer lines.

Since the graywater code revisions began, Laura Allen, along with other individuals and groups, formed the Greywater Alliance. One of its goals is to pass city ordinances that will direct the plumbing department to interpret graywater regulations in a graywater friendly manner and create a streamlined permitting process in Oakland and Berkeley.

“Right now, I try to get a graywater system permitted in Oakland and I ended up going to the building department and the first four responses of five people were ‘what’s graywater?’” said Nik Bertulis, a member of the DIG Cooperative, a worker-owned ecological design company that installed the first permitted graywater systems in San Francisco and Berkeley, including the Eco House. “There’s bureaucratic ignorance and we need literacy about environmental issues for us to be able to move forward as a society.”

While graywater legislation for residential landscape use is moving forward, Elizabeth Dougherty, organizer of the Northern California chapter of the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association, says our conservation and reuse potential will not be complete until we achieve greater commercial and institutional graywater reuse and develop statewide standards for residential indoor use of graywater, which is currently left up to local jurisdictions. For now, places that lack backyards, like the majority of San Francisco, might be out of luck when it comes to graywater reuse. The city’s main focus is not irrigation, according to Rosey Jencks, urban watershed management program planner at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, but it might be too early to interpret indoor graywater reuse. First, it needs to come from the state, she said. “But we’re definitely going to be really interested in following that.”

“What’s happening is paradigm shift. People are going to become increasingly aware that there are multiple sources of water. We use our water once and throw it away. We could afford to throw away this water but we can’t anymore,” said Bilson. He points out that in the 1990s, when cities began to put out compost bins, everybody became a little more organic. He hopes to see cities take similar initiative with graywater incentive programs.

SPECIAL NOTE: This article was produced with the help of Spot.Us (an open source project that supports community-funded journalism) and was made possible in part by the donations of Spot.Us members. Visit www.spot.us for more details.

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