Graywater still a gray area

Cold, fresh water rushes out of the tap. You wash your hands with it. The soap and grime drains away.

Normally, that used water is piped straight to a wastewater treatment facility, where it is filtered, ponded and disinfected at great expense. But if the ideas of a small-but-growing minority take hold, it could be diverted to water a backyard fruit tree instead.

This is “graywater,” a term used to describe water that is not fresh but not toxic either – such as the used water coming from a bathroom sink, shower drain or laundry machine. It’s not potable, of course, but plants like it just fine.

With that in mind, why shouldn’t residents of single-family homes, especially those living in dry climates such as Sonoma’s, be watering plants while they take a shower?

“Wow, you’re talking about the things we talk about in our Alternate Water Sources Working Group,” said James Johnson, a senior environmental health specialist for Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department.

Johnson and others believe graywater is an idea whose time has come. Although the concept has been around for several years – the East Bay’s “Greywater Guerilla Girls” were rebelliously installing not-to-code plumbing systems in the late 1990s – California only recently updated its building codes to make it easier to install such systems legally.

According to Johnson, the state updates its codes every three years – and new ones approved in 2013, and taking effect at the beginning of this year, have “given us a little bit more to work with.”

Today the regulations include a whole section devoted to graywater, which the state says can come from numerous sources including swimming pool backwash, foundation drainage or AC cooling runoff. Such water, once captured, can be stored only briefly and used for specific purposes.

“You can even bring it back into the house to flush the toilet,” Johnson said. If done properly, a typical household can reduce water use by about a third using a graywater system.

In this time of sustained drought, such recycling techniques are considered a good way to recapture some of California’s precious water. County leaders know this, Johnson said.

“My director came to me, about two weeks ago, and he provided the board of supervisors update that tells people in the county what’s going on,” Johnson said. Their new motto: “Retain it! Don’t drain it!”

According to the county’s website, “We can respond to the drought by installing graywater systems in our yards to irrigate plants and keep them thriving.” (More on graywater, including tips and brochures, can be found at sonoma-county.org/prmd/docs/misc/drought_alert.htm.)

Despite all that, graywater systems – even simple ones, and even in forward-thinking places like Sonoma – remain rare.

“No, it’s not catching on,” Johnson said bluntly.

Wayne Wirick Jr., development services director for the City of Sonoma, affirms that very few residents have applied for graywater permits through the city.

“I can recall three, I think,” over the past four years, he said. “I’d be surprised if we had five.”

“It’s not something that people take advantage of much.”

Wirick also noted, “The city has modified the state rules just slightly to require permits for all graywater systems.” This means that in Sonoma proper, even the most basic graywater system – essentially, diverting water from a clothes washer to outdoor landscaping – requires a permit costing around $200. (Most likely $170 to $220, “dependent on the quality of the plans submitted and the complexity of the distribution system,” Wyrick said.)

And unlike Santa Rosa, Sonoma does not offer any financial incentives for installing graywater systems.

Carrie Pollard, principal program specialist for the Sonoma County Water Agency, remained optimistic on the prospect of recycling water at the single-family-home level.

“I would say graywater is more predominant in Sonoma County than in other regions. But there’s definitely an opportunity for expansion,” she said.

Pollard is co-chair of the Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper, or QWEL, program, which offers training to contractors, plumbers and landscapers in “how to appropriately manage landscapes.” A subset of that training is installing graywater systems.

Anyone can sign up for the several-day, 10-hour program. “We do have homeowners come and participate in all of our classes,” she said.

Pollard warned that “graywater’s not for everyone. It does require some maintenance.” Still, she said, as Sonoma County weathers a years-long drought, “This is a source of water that’s readily available.”

Those wanting to participate in the QWEL program can sign up at qwel.net. The classes fill up quickly – the next one, starting March 25, in Santa Rosa, is already full – so interested parties should plan ahead.

“We now have a wait list, which is great,” Pollard said.

These are baby steps, perhaps. But from the perspective of someone who’s been following the movement from the beginning, graywater has come a long way.

“Compared to what it was and what it is now, it’s totally different,” said Laura Allen, an Oakland resident and one of the original Greywater Guerrillas. Today, for example, “You can legally install a graywater system with no permit,” she said, referring to the basic clothes-washer model.

Allen praised Johnson’s working group, as well as Daily Acts (dailyacts.org), a Petaluma-based group hosting graywater training seminars. And the city of Santa Rosa “has a really great rebate program,” she added.

It seems officials in that city have come to realize that, in the long run, “It’s cheaper for them to provide an incentive program than to buy more water.”


The Alternate Water Sources Working Group next meets on Wednesday, March 26, from 10 a.m. to noon in the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department meeting room, 2550 Ventura Ave, Santa Rosa. The keynote speaker is Bob Hitchner of Nexus eWater, a company touting a system that not only recycles water, but recycles the heat contained within that water. The public is invited to attend.