The Future of Water in California Looks Gray—and That’s a Good Thing

As cities cut back on irrigation and other urban uses, lawmakers are trying to make gray-water systems more common.

(Photo: Lee Rogers/Getty Images)

Apr 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

One of my proudest moments as a gardener came last summer, when I showed my neighbor Salvador my backyard. On seeing the beds of kale, tomatoes, eggplant, and peas, he declared me an honorary campesino, or peasant farmer—high praise from a longtime resident of my largely Latino neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles, his own backyard host to an orchard of pomegranate, apple, and avocado trees.

Maintaining that garden has become environmentally fraught for me over the past two winters, which have left California with little rain and even less snowpack in the high Sierra—one of the state’s most important reservoirs. In order to still grow some food and water less, I have turned to drought-resistant varieties of watermelon, corn, beans, and squash. Last weekend, I dug up the patch of grass on the parkway—between the sidewalk and curb—and have designs on removing what’s left of it too.

But I recently learned that Salvador, despite his still-green lawn, has me beat on the water conservation front. I’d venture to say he cares more about the drought than anyone I know. Walking into his backyard last weekend, I heard the gurgling rush of a draining washing machine and the whir of a dishwasher. Along the wall in the back of his bungalow I saw a row of five-gallon buckets and a huge trash can, each slowly filling up with gray, sudsy water.

This gray water—a term broadly applied to recycled waste water from kitchen appliances, bath tubs, showers, and sinks—that flows through discharge pipes sticking through rough holes cut in the white stucco keeps his fruit trees, rosebushes, and various Mexican herbs and vegetables from going thirsty. It’s the kind of conservation that everyone in a city like Los Angeles, where even in a normal year rainfall averages less than 20 inches, should engage in. But the jerry-rigged system, which was “installed,” as it were, without a permit, undoubtedly violates at least one, if not multiple, building codes.

Like the suburban pariah status that can come from letting a lawn go brown, using gray water is a resource-saving measure that can come with unreasonable and unexpected barriers. A permitting system for residential gray-water systems in Los Angeles was introduced in 2009, but activists call the process a “Kafkaesque nightmare.” Permits and plans for a simple branched drain system, which can divert the water from a bathtub or sink to an irrigation system, run $200.

But with Gov. Jerry Brown calling for mandatory water restrictions and a 25 percent reduction in urban water use as the state enters its fourth dry year, lawmakers are hoping to make gray water more commonplace and accessible to residents. Earlier this month, Supervisor Scott Wiener proposed a measure in San Francisco that would require new developments in the city to use gray water for landscaping and some plumbing uses. In Los Angeles, councilmember Paul Krekorian introduced a notion calling on the city to develop new standards for gray-water treatment systems, allowing for more of a home or business’ wastewater to be reused. (While some of the detergents and other household runoff can benefit plants, some wastewater requires treatment in order to be safe.) The motion also recommends a change in L.A.’s Green Building Code to encourage gray-water use in new construction as well.

“We need to explore every reasonable water conservation option that will help us get through this terrible drought and make our city more sustainable,” Krekorian said in a statement. “Using gray water systems in homes throughout Los Angeles just makes sense.”

Depending on how extensive a system is, 50 percent to 80 percent of the household’s water can be captured and reused. Watering lawns and other landscaping can account for as much as 80 percent of urban water use in some parts of California.

The other morning, I was out in the backyard, putzing around before leaving for work, judiciously watering, hanging with the dogs, and enjoying the flowers. Oftentimes, I can hear Salvador doing much the same on the other side of the fence. But instead of the distinct, continuous spray of a garden hose, I heard a series of quick splashes. Peeking over the fence, I saw Salvador walking around the garden with one of his sudsy five-gallon buckets, giving his plants a drink.