Drought-Prone Cities Get Real With Gray Water

Rachel Dovey
Next City
July 29, 2015

A Berkeley, California, resident shows off an irrigation system using gray water running through the back yard of her home. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

 

Confession: I’m a Californian who likes plants. I want to grow them outside my house in the dirt. I want to water them and watch them grow.

Does this make me a monster? Maybe. I know that while my front yard is made up of natives and veggies, not lawn grass, I’m still part of a pattern in which lower-density cities use more water to keep things green outside. And knowing that has led to my love-hate relationship with the subject of today’s post: gray water.

Perhaps you live in one of those strange and magical places where precipitation still falls from the sky, and don’t yet know about gray water. Gray water is “gently used water from your bathroom sinks, showers, tubs and washing machines,” according to a leading advocacy source, which can be reused for irrigation. It’s a literal bucketful of untapped potential, given that an average shower uses about 17 gallons and washing machines use between 14 and 40 per load. But even though it’s legal in California (it isn’t in every state), a bundle of codes, permits and even the most basic of questions — how to transport it outside — still make gray water a decidedly tricky business.

I speak from experience.

My foray into the murky world of gray water began last March, when my husband, daughter and I moved into a rental with a small front yard. I wanted a garden, but my drought fear was then new and visceral — Northern California wildfires had been off the charts the previous summer, thirsty animals were dying in record numbers as they tried to cross the roads, and even the low-maintenance ivy patches bordering my city’s public buildings had gone crispy and tan.

Still, I planted seedlings in pots, determined to grow them with recycled water. I placed metal bowls under the bathroom faucets and started researching laundry-to-landscape systems.

Quickly, I became overwhelmed by just how much I needed to know about the mechanics of water flow. I’d assumed that the process would be simple: Hook a hose to the back of my washer and drain it into the yard. But my laundry room was downhill from my plants. I didn’t want to build a platform for the washer because the thought of climbing a stepladder every time I needed to do laundry made me want to do that particular chore even less than I already did, so I bought a plastic barrel, constructed a DIY filter, raised the barrel onto a platform, attached a hose to the bottom and then hooked the washer up.

It was both expensive and time-consuming — and although I know now that my city offers a rebate program, I don’t think that system would have been eligible. For starters, we rented and didn’t seek our landlord’s approval (whoops). And that barrel allowed water to pool and sit which, I’ve since learned, is a Gray Water 101 Don’t.

I’ve discontinued that system, and while I plan to build another, I know it won’t be easy.

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