Not just during drought but even in times of normal precipitation, there is something absurd about taking precious drinking water — imported at great cost from environmentally fragile areas hundreds of miles away, pumped over the mountains using enormous amounts of energy, filtered, treated and tested so as to be safe for human consumption — and spraying it on lawns and flowers. It doesn’t make much more sense than sprinkling the garden with Perrier or Fiji water, yet that’s how about half of urban water in Los Angeles is used.
Many Southern Californians have become fairly water-wise and do their best to squeeze multiple uses out of the same gallons, collecting their shower or washing machine water runoff and then using it on the plants. That kind of recycled water, known as gray water — or is it grey water? — is different from “blackwater,” like toilet waste, which can never be used again without extensive treatment.
Recycling of nonsewage household water is nothing new in California. During the drought of 1977-78, the state offered tax breaks to residents who installed gray-water systems but ended them as soon as the rain began to fall again. L.A. began a gray-water pilot project in the midst of a drought that began in 1987 but shelved it when the rains came again in the early 1990s.
Homeowners and gardeners who reused their water anyway were operating in a gray area (or was it a grey area?) because inspection and sign-off was required from county health departments — and they issued few permits.
Things changed with a revised state plumbing code in 2010 and annual revisions after that, the most recent of which supersedes all local codes unless the local city or county adopts its own rules. Things have moved quickly, and new proposals are being offered, so the laws on reusing household water can be confusing, even to the city and county officials responsible for implementing and overseeing them.
L.A. residents should know, then, that they no longer need official permission to direct their washing machine runoff into the flowers, as long as the water is delivered at least 2 inches beneath a layer of mulch or soil, where people and pets won’t come in contact with it.
Such water can’t be allowed to pool. Any system has to easily be directed back to the sewer if need be — for example, when the water has been used to wash dirty diapers. There can be no cutting into pipes — to avoid the possibility of cross-contaminating the runoff with the clean-water supply. Complaints about foul odors or similar problems will be met with a notice or visit from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
There remains a bit of haziness about such laundry-to-landscape practices; for example, are there official penalties for doing something a bit stupid, like using bleach on the begonias? Gardeners will have to think this through for themselves.
Anything more complex requires a permit and sign-off from city and county health officials, although City Hall offers over-the-counter permits for shower and tub runoff, or “showers to flowers.” More elaborate systems with pumps and tanks require inspection from both city and county public health officials. Wider use of gray water, to use instead of drinking water to flush toilets, for example, requires additional thought and official action before it becomes as common in California as it has in some arid nations.
By the way, government tends to spell gray water with an “a,” as is most common in American English. “The cool kids spell it with an ‘e,’” says a person who manufacturers and installs recycled water systems.
At the state level, control over the quality of recycled water recently moved from the Department of Public Health to the State Water Resources Control Board — evidence of new priorities emerging from the current drought. In L.A., Councilman Paul Krekorian would require gray water capacity to be included in any new construction.
But we have seen droughts before and have seen water recycling momentum run down the drain when wet weather comes. Let’s hope that it’s different this time, and that state and local officials not only stoke but also keep up with public demand for recycled household water systems.