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Graywater: UCLA gives Southern California a mixed grade

December 3, 2009 | 11:24 am

Greywaterballvalve UCLA issued its Southern California Environmental Report Card last week. Its grade for graywater (the wastewater generated from showers, baths, sinks and washing machines): B+ overall, "for moving forward to address the need to increase California’s water portfolio, for recognizing the potential of graywater recycling and reuse... and for easing graywater permitting requirements," the report stated.

But that good overall grade was tempered with a B- "for providing insufficient public information and guidance regarding graywater recycling technologies and regulations."

With California heading toward a fourth year of drought, the state in August implemented emergency adoption of a revised graywater code, which allowed homeowners to install clothes washers or other single-fixture residential graywater systems in their homes without a construction permit as long as they followed 12 guidelines.

While graywater activists praised the state's embrace of a new graywater code, which reversed a 17-year-old policy that required permits and extensive filtering apparatus, they say education is the missing link.

"In the past, agencies were not able to provide meaningful education because of the codes," said Laura Allen, founding member of Graywater Action, an activist group in Oakland. "They just said, 'Here's the code,' and no one could follow it. Now there's very little education coming from the state level of water agencies. Currently, most of the education is from the grass-roots level."

In Southern California, about 54% of water consumption is attributed to urban residential use. Of the water used in a typical SoCal single-family home, 38% is for outdoor irrigation, 62% is for indoor use, according to the state Department of Water Resources' California Water Plan Update. Recapturing the graywater produced inside a home could, in many cases, provide all the water necessary for outside plantings.

The UCLA report, titled "Graywater: A Potential Source of Water," estimated that if 10% of Southern Californians implemented graywater systems for their laundry, showers, dishwashers and faucets, "the potable water savings would be equivalent to, or larger than, the capacity of a modern, large seawater desalination plant such as those proposed for California."

The likelihood of that happening is, for now, slim, due not only to a lack of public education but an impending revision to the recently revised code. The agency responsible for revising the state's graywater code, the Department of Housing and Community Development, is scaling back the graywater code that is in effect under the emergency plan, which by law holds for 180 days and is due to expire Feb. 4.

According to HCD spokesman Doug Hensel, the new graywater code was facing opposition from environmental health agencies and city and county inspectors, who feared possible exposure to pathogenic bacteria and other negative health ramifications from people cutting their drain waste and vent systems to reuse the graywater from their sinks, bathtubs and showers without any government oversight. The revised graywater code is likely to allow only clothes-washer systems, which can be installed without making any cuts to existing plumbing and can be done without first obtaining a construction permit.

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo credit: Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times