November 30th, 2009

Greywater: A resource

It’s Saturday morning laundry time. The washer spins and shakes, clothes are cleaned while the dirty water flows outside to irrigate fruit trees. There’s something satisfying about this
simple shift: a slight change in a mundane chore has reduced water consumption, taken a load off the sewer treatment plant, promoted food security, and saved time and money.

Over the past few decades reusing water from showers, sinks, and washing machines, called greywater reuse, was mainly embraced by the  “do-it-yourself” community. Handy people rerouted their pipes, diverting this resource away from sewers and septic systems, out to trees, bushes, and other landscaping.  Though popular, all this was technically “illegal”, surprising in a state like California, fraught with drought, water rationing, and proposals to spend billions of dollars on new dam construction.

Transforming regulations

Greywater use is regulated by the state plumbing code, which historically was very restrictive and made it overly expensive or outright impossible for people to get permits for greywater. This resulted in almost zero compliance of the code (of the estimated millions of greywater users in the state, there were only a few hundred permits), a lack of professional installers, and a huge amount of misinformation about the best ways to reuse greywater.

In 2008, Alan Lowenthal, a State senator from Long Beach, CA, wrote a “Shower to Flower” bill (SB 1258) that mandated a code rewrite of the old greywater code, moving regulatory power from the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).  HCD convened a series of stakeholder’s meetings to gain input from greywater experts, health departments, building departments, water districts, and other concerned citizens, as well as analyzed existing studies and codes on greywater.

Recipe for a code change:
* 3 stakeholders meetings in Sacramento
* hundreds of letters, emails, and phone calls in support of a friendly greywater code *drought
* increased water rates
* mandatory water rationing in many districts
*extensive time and research from HCD staff
*greywater friendly codes examples in Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico
*media coverage of greywater success stories
*green job potential

Mix ingredients together during a time of “drought emergency”, sprinkle a few newspaper articles about people successfully (yet illegally) saving thousands of gallons of water with simple, safe systems, add a dash of green jobs potential in a failing economy,
season with forward thinking individuals in charge of the process.

Results: A new greywater friendly code

The new code removed barriers for simple, low cost greywater systems. Now washing machine systems do not require a permit, only compliance with state-published guidelines, and no inspection. Permits are still required for systems that alter existing plumbing, larger systems, and the section of code governing indoor reuse is not complete.

Gardens are flourishing

The biggest effect of statewide greywater reuse, aside from the happy plants, will be the ability of professionals to incorporate greywater into their business Landscapers like, Deva Luna from Earthcare landscaping in San Jose (, offers greywater to clients. Other gardeners like David Mudge from David Mudge’s Gardens in Martinez, California, use greywater as part of sustainable permaculture design practices.

a greywater garden

a greywater garden

trenching pipes

trenching pipes

The greywater goes out of the house through the floor and travels across the crawl space underneath the house. The auto-vent is inside the house since it needs to be at the high point of the greywater line.

The greywater goes out of the house through the floor and travels across the crawl space underneath the house. The auto-vent is inside the house since it needs to be at the high point of the greywater line.

Our water future

While greywater policy advances, California water policies lag behind. State government and local water districts continue to seek out unsustainable sources of water; from destructive new dams, overdrawing from rivers and ground water, costly desalination plants, and expensive recycled water. As regulatory barriers are removed, decision makers need to include and promote sustainable practices such as greywater reuse, rainwater harvesting, and waterless toilets as a path to a sustainable water future.

There are a few things people could do.

1. Write a thank you note to HCD for the new code: James Rowland

2. Write to the local building department/inspectors/city council telling them how happy you are that it’s easier to install legal greywater systems and encourage them to support greywater use. (possibly by promoting it with education, demonstration projects, information on their websites, etc.

is a founder of Greywater Action and has spent a decade exploring low-tech, urban sustainable water solutions. She has a BA in Environmental Science, a teaching credential and a masters in education from New College of CA. She is a co-editor of the anthology Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground

Greywater Action offers presentations and hands-on classes on sustainable water use technologies. See for more info.

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