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Gray water debate in Sacramento steams up

March 17, 2009 |  2:42 pm

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The graywater debate is reaching the boiling point in Sacramento, with lawmakers and gray water advocates both getting steamed in their attempts to draft a new residential gray water standard for the state of California. Under current law, homeowners who want to install systems that recycle the wastewater generated from their sinks, showers, bathtubs and laundry machines into their landscaping must conform to Appendix G of the California plumbing code, which requires that gray water systems not only be permitted by the appropriate administrative authority but installed underground with extensive filtering apparatus.

Appendix G went into effect in 1992 at the tail end of a five-year drought. Its update was required by Senate Bill 1258, which passed last summer, requiring the state's Department of Housing and Community Development to revise the code in an effort "to conserve water by facilitating greater reuse of graywater in California." While the code's revision is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2011, its specific provisions are currently under intense debate.

Gray water advocates say California's current residential gray water standard is too restrictive, impractical and expensive and are lobbying for a standard similar to Arizona's. In Arizona, homeowners are allowed to install gray water systems without a permit as long as they are recycling no more than 400 gallons of gray water a day and follow a set of 13 guidelines. Representatives from California's Department of Housing and Community Development, however, say they have to come up with a workable standard that "won't create any type of a long-term hazard for the whole state," said Jim Rowland, the HCD representative who is working on the new code. "We're not going to make everybody happy, but there's a bull's-eye in there somewhere."

According to Rowland, the main issues in the code's revision are the permitting and design processes. Under the current code, homeowners must obtain a permit to install a gray water system, and that system must be designed to meet all the technical requirements set forth in Appendix G. Rowland said his department is considering a permit exemption for a certain type of gray water system, i.e. a laundry machine diversion. His department is also determining if licensed contractors and governmental inspections should be required with those systems that would still require permits.

On the design side, Rowland said "there's a desire to have this be performance regulated rather than a prescriptive design. Instead of requiring X number of feet of pipe with X amount of holes for drainage at X depth, you are required to design the system so it will use all of the water intended from the fixtures that drain into it on a daily basis so you don't have standing water."

The primary issue with standing graywater is odor, which makes it a public nuisance issue. But there are health issues the HCD is also investigating -- ones that are difficult to fully understand since little long-term research exists on the subject, Rowland said.

Though gray water proponents say there have been no documented cases of gray water-involved illness in the United States, Rowland says there's also no long-term study that's been completed on the subject. Absent that, he said, "We really don't have anything to point to if we're challenged" by the state's Building Standards Commission, which ultimately has to sign off on any code the HCD comes up with.

Meanwhile, as the state's water crisis deepens, the use of unpermitted gray water systems continues throughout California. Art Ludwig, an ecological designer in Santa Barbara who has written three books about gray water and has been giving input to Rowland and the HCD, says only 10 permits for gray water systems have been issued in Santa Barbara in the last 21 years. He estimates there are 1.7 million non-permit gray water systems in the entire state, citing a Graywater Awareness and Usage Study conducted by the Soap and Detergent Assn., which found that 13.9% of Californians were using gray water.

In Los Angeles, fewer than 10 residential systems are permitted and legally installed each year through the Building and Safety Department. Dick Bennett, of the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Northern California, says fewer than 10 permits have been issued in his 1.4-million-residence area in the past 15 years.

"I get calls daily from people who want to know about gray water. They’re collecting it in a bucket, and they want to know about putting in a more formal system, and I give them the information and I never hear back," said Bennett, whose agency offers rebates of $250-$500 for legally installed systems that cost upward of $5,000. "That tells me if they did go ahead with gray water, they went with an unpermitted system.

"In a water shortage, that’s just where people go," added Bennett. "They went there in 1976 during the severe water shortage. They went there from 1988 to 1992, when we had the last serious water shortage. And they’re going to it again this year."

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times

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