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.”