Is the Best Way to Beat the Drought Against the Law?

Recycling wastewater to irrigate gardens and landscaping is one of the best means of conservation—but it can be illegal.

(Photo courtesy Leigh Jerrard) 

Jul 30, 2014· 5 MIN READ
Danielle L. Davis is a nonfiction writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Intentional, L.A. Weekly, and on various Internet platforms.

“This is completely illegal!” Leigh Jerrard said to a group of eclectic Los Angelenos gathered in a picturesque Pasadena bungalow around bowls of steel-cut oats and fresh blueberries. On a recent Saturday morning, environmentally conscious gardeners and DIY enthusiasts looked on as he walked through an introductory slide show on building home water-recycling systems. A screen-printed logo of his gray-water installation company, Greywater Corps, decorated his gray T-shirt. He pointed to a photo of a black PVC piping contraption that hung underneath a kitchen sink. “Don’t tell anybody I did that,” he said with an unconcerned chuckle.

As California endures its third year of drought—and one of the hottest years on record—Gov. Jerry Brown is encouraging everyone, from residents to businesses to state agencies, to conserve water. Jerrard and his gray-water team are a few steps ahead of the game—they’ve been pushing up against the law for years to do so.

On average, residents use about 122 gallons of water a day (or 196 including industry use), according to the Department of Water and Resources. About half of that is devoted to outdoor landscape irrigation. Gray-water systems capture used water from bathtubs, showers, and laundry (typically 50 percent to 80 percent of a household’s waste stream) and divert it for outdoor use. The flourishing avocados, peaches, lemons, cucumbers, zucchinis, tomatoes, grapefruits, peppers, tangerines, kumquats, and corn in Jerrard’s front yard serve as shining examples of how this simple technology can turn water “waste” into edible bounty.

Current electronic readings indicate the Sierra Nevada snowpack—which provides drinking water to a third of California’s residents—has a statewide water content of just 16 percent of its average. The state reservoir levels are at about half the historical average. When Brown declared a statewide drought emergency last January, he urged residents to reduce their water use by 20 percent. Not one region in the state has accomplished this; at 13 percent, the communities nearest to the Sacramento River come closest.

Although formally legalized in 2009, the permitting process for residential gray water is, as Jerrard describes, “a Kafkaesque nightmare.” According to Jerrard, codes are riddled with unnecessary restrictions that pose as maddening incongruities with the dire state of drought the West faces. So he pays them little heed. Instead, he and his team traipse around Los Angeles, rigging environmentally conscious folks’ homes with water-recycling systems and teaching workshops to empower people to do it themselves. He is L.A.’s gray-water renegade.

Back in the 1990s, Jerrard, now a spritely 51-year-old, started his career as an architect for Frank Gehry. He built 3-D models for corporate lunchrooms and wineries, and he worked on remodels for affluent home owners. By his second decade in architecture, he was feeling worn down by the dissonance between those types of exorbitant projects and his own social values—Jerrard wanted “architecture for the masses,” he said. So when the Great Recession gutted much of the architecture and construction industry and he got laid off, he was ready for what came next: a time of self-described “introspection and reevaluation.”

He started planting fruit trees with his two-year-old son. It was therapeutic. Then he’d draw a bath to wash that dirt-laden little body clean.

“Fifty gallons,” he’d think to himself as the water poured out. It takes about 50 gallons of water to fill a bathtub—about the same amount that it took to water the fruit trees. The redundant use of such a precious natural resource troubled Jerrard. So he set out to find a way to water the garden with the post-bath leftover.

With his background in architecture and engineering, Jerrard had a special awareness of the marvels required for water to reach his yard hose. California is home to the world’s largest system of aqueducts. Its three water conduits—the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the State Water Project, and the Colorado River Aqueduct—transport water from various distant sources through 1,244 miles of concrete channels. Together they move about 1 million gallons of H2O a minute; the SWP is the largest single consumer of power in the state. All told, about 20 percent of California’s electricity goes to moving water from remote sources to, for instance, Jerrard’s bathtub faucet.

He experimented with clumsy systems—including ciphering—and was able to cobble together a mostly functional rig. But it was at a five-day gray-water installer’s workshop that he learned what would become the foundations of his current bathwater-to-tree-water expertise. The workshop was taught by Laurie Allen, whom Jerrard calls one of the “gurus of gray water,” at the Los Angeles Eco-Village. Allen, along with the other gray-water guru, Cleo Woelfe-Erskine, cofounded Greywater Action, a nonprofit that educates and empowers people to build sustainable water infrastructures.

When the pair self-published their instructional zine, The Guerrilla Greywater Girls Guide to Water, installing such systems was something of a revolutionary act. The permitting requirements were so outrageous that no one would dare attempt them, Jerrard explained. The state required that the equivalent of a mini sewage treatment plant be kept on-site to treat all recycled water.

While Allen affirms that the bureaucratic red tape has been trimmed down in recent years, she and Jerrard still feel that there are far too many unnecessary barriers. In most of the U.S., gray water remains functionally illegal—this despite 36 states being faced with local or regional water shortages. With fresh water sources running dry across the nation, conservation is far from a California-specific issue.

“We have a lot of interest from people in using gray-water systems,” said Osama Younan, chief of the LADBS’s Green Buildings Division. “So we developed this standard plan to make it easier for people to get the permit.” The department now offers permits and ready-made plans for a simple, branched drain system, which is used to recycle bathroom shower or sink water for about $200.

Jerrard looks to Arizona and Australia as hopeful examples, where gray-water technology is more ubiquitous and permits are replaced by “best management practices” that act as guidelines. In California, the code only allows easy access to the most rudimentary of systems—no pumps, no filters, just simple gravity flow—which accounts for only a fraction of the systems Jerrard installs.

“It’s very difficult to get permits if you’re doing anything that’s slightly complicated,” he explained. It would require site plans, plumbing plans, visor diagrams, architect notes, calculations, cut sheets, many months of waiting, and a decent chunk of change.

Part of the problem, according to Jerrard, is that the building and health departments are hesitant to relinquish the traditions of an archaic plumber’s creed, which envisions water in stark black and white terms: There is supply water and then there is waste water. The health department gets fidgety over the in between, the gray, preferring it remain unseen and untouched.

That’s why of the 100 to 200 systems (he’s lost count) that Jerrard has installed throughout Los Angeles since 2008, only about 10 have been permitted.

“Who cares about legality!” he said, throwing his hands up. “If it’s safe and it makes sense, do it anyway.... We are in a major drought, after all.”

It’s common parlance among water conservationists that Americans have a particularly disjointed relationship with water. The U.S. is by far the world’s leader in per-capita consumption of H2O, double that of most of our European counterparts. Countries with similar warm climates and quality of life, such as Australia and Spain, have managed to get their daily water consumption down to between 30 and 50 gallons per person. Over three-fourths of U.S. residents, excluding those who have their own well, don’t know where their water comes from. Melanie Winter, director of The River Project, describes a certain intentional invisibility of water. The water system’s infrastructure is designed to get it off a property as soon as possible after a rain, sending it from the roof to a pipe that discreetly takes it underground and out of sight.

“We run water, it goes down the drain, and then it’s out of sight,” said Jessica Handy, the hostess of the workshop on that Saturday. In exchange for using her home for the gathering, Jerrard installed a gray-water system that now irrigates her voluminous fruit and vegetable garden.

“If you don’t know where water comes from or where it’s going, you don’t know the impacts,” added Allen. “Our current model is not going to work in the future.”

“If you don’t have water, you die!” Jerrard says in a tone verging on fanaticism. It’s a fact that he believes is far from most people’s minds. “But you can turn on a faucet and it comes out, almost free. It’s undervalued.”

He holds that gray-water systems are an important step in closing that disjoint in our relationship with water. It keeps the water on your property, visible. You’re aware of it as a resource. Gray-water systems help quantify water, undoing the illusion that it runs infinitely.

When I visited his home, Jerrard walked me around his robust tree garden with the pride of a kid showing off a fort he built from scratch. He went meticulously to each produce-bearing plant, rummaged in its limbs and, withdrawing its bounty, displayed it with palms extended. Loquats and avocados and tangerines and plums and more.

“See? This is what you can get from gray water.”