To reuse our wastewater - once is not enough!
As Californians seek environmentally friendly ways to stretch our limited water supplies, many households are installing graywater systems - to capture and reuse the runoff from showers, bathtubs, bathroom sinks, and washing machines to water their gardens and flush their toilets. Most of these are simple ad-hoc irrigation systems, but technological innovations such as integrated sink-to-toilet fixtures and clothes washers that reuse rinse water are also appearing on the market.
The dark secret of this encouraging trend is that most of these systems lack local permits. While graywater reuse is not technically illegal, the existing state graywater plumbing code is so onerous and expensive that both local building officials, who should be issuing permits, and homeowners themselves refuse to deal with it.
Last year, however, the legislature passed a bill (SB 1258, Lowenthal) instructing the California Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) to revise the plumbing code to facilitate the permitting and installation of graywater systems.
Sierra Club California, along with other statewide environmental and water-conservation organizations, supports the revision. The more we can reuse water, the less justification there is for taking additional water from Sierra rivers, like the Mokelumne or Tuolumne, and further stressing the Delta.
DHCD released a new draft code on April 14 and will receive comments at a meeting on April 27, where the next steps in this fast-moving process will presumably be determined.
Many graywater advocates are pushing for further revisions.
- Rather than requiring a permit, inspections, and testing for single-family homes, the code should provide for a simple, inexpensive process, whereby a homeowner assumes full responsibility. Even the East Bay Municipal Utility District fully supports this provision.
- The requirements for licensed designers and installers should be eased to make systems more affordable.
- Surface-drip and mulch-basin application of graywater should be allowed as long as there is no runoff or ponding, so that the graywater can reach plant roots and so that soil micro-organisms can act on it.
- Rather than prescribing specific designs or equipment, the code should give generic descriptions for indoor and outdoor systems, to allow for and stimulate new graywater technologies.
- Indoor use of graywater for flushing toilets should be allowed without pre-treatment with chemicals or dyes.
- There should be leeway for graywater use on non-edible parts of plants in vegetable gardens. (This provision has been included in the latest draft.)
- Graywater irrigation systems should be clearly distinguished from sewage leach fields in terms of dimensions, setbacks, and separation distances from groundwater and surface waters, as long as no runoff or contamination can occur.
- Codes should address the permitting of graywater systems for multi-family dwellings, and for commercial, industrial, and institutional facilities.
- Local governments should be allowed to modify the code for local conditions, but not to prohibit graywater systems altogether.
Since this new state code will not take effect until 2011, several Bay Area organizations are also campaigning for local ordinances that would smooth the way for legal graywater installations in the interim until the new code takes effect.
The Greywater Alliance is involved in negotiations with the Berkeley, which has its own internal Health Department, making such agreements easier. Oakland is another target of these efforts to shape local permit guidelines.
By far the greatest impediment to expanded graywater acceptance at the policy level is the fear of health risks. While there are conflicting interpretations of the research, a de-facto experiment has been underway in Arizona and New Mexico, where reasonable requirements have allowed legal graywater systems to proliferate. As yet, not one incident of graywater-transmitted illness has been documented.
As this process moves forward, graywater supporters continue to urge the Department of Housing and Community Development to craft a truly progressive code for California that emulates the successful statutes already in effect in Texas and New Mexico.
Contact your state legislators and urge them to use their influence to get the Department of Housing and Community Development to address the points above in the new California Plumbing Code for graywater.
To learn more about California's graywater code revision, contact Sonia Diermayer of the Chapter Water Committee.
For more information on graywater see: