Drought-busters hit a hurdle

Times Staff Writer

THE Western red bud trees, ceanothus, island snapdragon and other native flora have been planted with care and precision in front of a new Santa Monica house. Good thing they’re not thirsty plants, because not one drop of water has flowed from a special irrigation system installed last June.

Homeowner Steve Glenn is frustrated. He’s still waiting for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to sign off in order to turn on the underground drip system, which will recycle water from his bathroom sinks, showers, laundry sink and clothes washer.

Using so-called gray water during what may be a record dry year seems like a no-brainer, but Glenn is finding otherwise. Residents who want to conserve a precious natural resource encounter road blocks, often in the form of red tape.

“I knew there weren’t many residential gray-water systems,” Glenn says of the drawn-out procedure to get his final certificate of occupancy. “I knew the process was not refined, but I didn’t realize it would be this hard.”

California authorized the use of gray water statewide for single-family homes in 1992. The state Department of Water Resources developed standards and provided a Graywater Guide for homeowners and others ( But particulars such as permit and inspection requirements were left to local jurisdictions. In Santa Monica and Los Angeles, for example, the building and safety departments oversee gray-water construction. Both cities also require approval from the L.A. County health department.


The agencies often have different requirements, which can ratchet up a homeowner’s cost to install a gray-water system. “The policy makers desperately need to vertically integrate this process: bring in inspectors, building and safety people and others so everyone is on the same page, so the process is simplified for the homeowner,” says Bill Wilson, a Mill Valley environmental planning and engineering consultant who has installed many systems including Glenn’s. He says he has encountered similar bureaucratic delays in other California cities.

Wilson says some people will pay a premium to have an ecologically savvy system. “There are people who are motivated and don’t want to pay the price, doing it anyway,” he says. “There are not a lot of permits, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of systems.”

IN 1991 the city of Los Angeles, in response to the drought from 1987 to 1992, conducted a pilot gray-water test involving eight homes. Mary Nichols of Hancock Park and Ruth Galanter of Venice were among the early pioneers.

“I had a wonderful system,” says Nichols, a member of the Department of Water & Power commission then and now. “I loved it,” she says of the automated system that was the Cadillac of its time. Former City Council member Galanter had a different system -- one she flipped on manually and liked for the savings on her water bill.

Results of this pilot project helped persuade Sacramento lawmakers to approve gray water for residential use. But as interest was increasing, “some idiot proclaimed the drought was over,” Galanter recalls. The effect of that declaration, she says, was to put the kibosh on this conservation effort.

Today neither Galanter nor Nichols has a working system because, both say, they have been unable to find anyone who can fix it. “The valves needed to be replaced,” Nichols says, “but the company that made them went out of business.”

Maintenance was an issue that arose following the test study, says Andy Lipkis, president of TreePeople, a Los Angeles environmental group. “The installed pilot systems worked until they needed support/maintenance, and once they needed it, years after deployment, the installers were out of business and left no documentation that anyone could find, making maintenance even more difficult.”

Of course this has not been the case with all gray-water users. Sol Fingold has been nurturing the native plant garden in front of his Beverly Hills home with gray water since 1998. The octogenarian’s only complaint: The city water agency won’t give him a credit for saving water. Still, he plans to put in a gray-water system in his backyard.

Few will argue with the water and money savings. Meanwhile, advances in technology have led to more satisfied users. But from the start there have been concerns about gray water’s effect, if any, on soil, plants and humans.

“The biggest concern is public well-being and public health,” says Christine Magar, chairwoman of the American Institute of Architects’ L.A. chapter committee on the environment. The group works with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and council members on water issues. “With gray water, the concern is what kind of filtration requirements are good enough for nonpotable uses and potable uses,” she says. “If every house has its own gray-water system, who is going to regulate and enforce it?”

State standards do not address health issues. They stipulate only that a system use subsurface irrigation, have a surge tank and filter, and be permitted.

Cities such as Santa Monica and Los Angeles require separate gray-water permits and inspections. So does the county public health department. Glenn has been waiting for the county to approve his design, at which point a county inspector will be dispatched. (It took three weeks to get a call back to learn where to send the plans.)

The county receives few gray-water requests, according to Alfonso Medina, director of the environmental protection bureau, which oversees land use and water quality. Although toilets flush to a sewer line and not a home’s gray-water system, the county classifies the gray-water holding tanks as a septic system, which is handled by mountain and rural inspectors.

“Most septic systems are in rural areas of the county,” Medina explains. “We don’t have an inspector of that type connected with Santa Monica.” There is one for Malibu, Calabasas and other rural areas. “That may be part of the glitch if I can say there is one,” Medina says of Glenn’s difficulty getting approval.

The county’s biggest concern, he says, is gray-water contamination to the groundwater.

The L.A. pilot project found no negative effects on plant growth and quality of landscape plants. A 2006 study on the “Long Term Effects of Landscape Irrigation Using Household Graywater” identified knowledge gaps in the long-term effects of residential gray water on plants, groundwater and health of humans. The report, by the Water Environment Research Foundation and the Soap and Detergent Assn., recommends further research.

GLENN is a 21st century gray-water pioneer. His prefabricated home is the first house in Santa Monica to go through a gray-water permitting process.

Before the home was built, its water conservation package -- gray-water system and a separate cistern for rainwater and runoff -- was awarded a $20,000 grant from the city. As with any new construction, there have been some delays.

Since the house was completed last April and after an extended city building review, Glenn lives there under a temporary permit for occupancy.

The county’s plan review includes an inspection; if the system is approved, Santa Monica would give the final occupancy permit.

In the meantime, he shows the property to prospective clients interested in the steel-framed, prefabricated house, which was designed by architect Ray Kappe and built by Glenn’s company, Living Homes.

“We’re helping to pave the way,” for gray water, says Amy Sims, project architect for Living Homes. “But there are a lot of gray areas.”