How graywater could be a conservation method for the masses. (But isn't.)
Rodney Rash is the kind of guy who knows how to make something out of nothing. A former carpenter and electrician, Rash now works as a magician, constructing his own props and offering the plans for free online. He’s plugging away at a book on how to build a home for $35,000. But when he went to go construct a system to recycle water from his sinks, showers and washing machine at his home in Round Rock, Rash was stymied.
After researching and coming up with a basic plan for his graywater project, he called the city to find out how to get it permitted.
“They basically told me that I couldn’t do that,” he said. “Specifically, they said I couldn’t have a permitted graywater system and that these systems were very uncommon throughout Texas, but I could have a rain barrel. If you’re trucking in water from other areas to meet demand, why waste all this perfectly good water?”
Round Rock is far from unusual. Despite persistent drought across much of Texas, most cities do nothing to promote graywater reuse as a conservation method, letting billions of gallons of usable water go down the drain and on to expensive and energy-intensive sewage treatment plants. Even for committed conservationists and tinkerers, Texas government, which is not known for over-regulation, often stands in the way.
Every time you take a shower, use the bathroom sink or run a load of laundry, the resulting graywater—as distinct from “blackwater,” which has come into contact with human waste—could be diverted to water your lawn or irrigate a tree. A typical household produces 100 gallons of usable graywater per day, enough to replace 10 to 25 percent of potable water use on an average landscape, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center. A statewide effort to retrofit homes with graywater systems could yield savings of up to 390,000 acre-feet of water per year, according to the Texas Water Resources Institute. That’s enough water to supply 130,000 typical households.
Despite the potential savings, most Texas cities are doing very little to encourage graywater use and often have regulations that make it difficult for even highly motivated people to install graywater systems. I reached five of the cities in the thick of Texas’ drought—Austin, El Paso, Round Rock, San Antonio and Wichita Falls—and not one offered incentives or rebates for graywater systems or even programs to educate citizens. In El Paso, the city water utility initially said it discouraged graywater use because of public health concerns. In Austin, the water utility requires people to get a permit even for simple washing-machine-to-landscape applications. In those five cities, we found that only three households had obtained permits for larger-scale systems that require plumbing changes. All three are in Austin.
Without formal programs and public education, enthusiasts are left to navigate regulations on their own or ignore the rules altogether.
Graywater advocates say a teachable moment—with many people attuned to conservation ideas amid a devastating drought—is being wasted, along with potential cash and water savings.
“Graywater has the potential to step in in a place where reuse and reclaim does not,” said Lauren Ross, an environmental engineer and owner of Glenrose Engineering in Austin. “A lot of us have a rainwater cache, and when we’re in a deep drought, these tanks are empty. Graywater is a source of water that’s local, right here in my house. It generates the same amount whether it’s raining or not, and can be reused in any weather condition. It doesn’t require huge amounts of energy or expensive infrastructure, but it does require maintenance.”
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Before 2003, Texas didn’t generally allow residents to collect or reuse graywater, mainly due to concerns that using it on landscapes could pose serious risks to public health—fears that have been largely laid to rest by recent science, experts say. Most cities in Texas didn’t formally introduce graywater regulations until recently. Austin, which has put the most thought into the issue, only made graywater use legal in 2010. A graywater stakeholder committee, which included professionals such as Ross and other engineers, worked with city officials to develop less onerous rules.
Austin requires permits for all graywater systems, including a relatively simple laundry-to-landscape system, which typically involves running your washing machine discharge to some turf or a tree.
“We’ve been quite progressive as a whole with the adoption of this code, in particular, with the laundry to landscape,” said Austin Water Utility spokesman Robert Stefani. “It’s a great place to start, and we think it will smooth the adoption curve a bit. Instead of forcing the public into these big systems, we’ve given the public something easy to use and cheap to install.”
But the adoption rate is still very low. Currently, there are three permitted graywater systems in Austin.
Ross says the permitting process is still “more difficult than it needs to be for residential graywater systems.” She adds that lingering water quality concerns are overblown and date back to a time when drinking water and wastewater commingled, leading to typhoid and cholera outbreaks.
“There are no recorded instances of anybody ever contracting a waterborne disease from a graywater system, permitted or unpermitted,” Ross said. “The city is confusingly cautious about why they want these excessive standards for graywater systems that don’t apply to things that are as much of a threat as graywater, such as a kiddie pool.”
Austin, with its “excessive” standards, is still ahead of the rest of the state, but with no guidance, few bothered to navigate the rules.
A few years ago, environmental engineer Rebecca Batchelder set out to get her home graywater system permitted. As an engineer, she could draft her own plans, which came in handy.
“When I went to pull my permit, the permit officer had to ask me what graywater was, so you can imagine how it went from there,” she said. “The folks there were very helpful, they just had no defined process.”
Four years later, graywater regulations have been updated but only two more homes have gone through the permitting process. For Batchelder, this doesn’t come as a surprise.
“Graywater is tricky. The permitting is still probably more difficult than it should be and it usually requires cutting into your plumbing, which is scary for homeowners,” she said. “There aren’t rebates, and water is still too cheap for it to be worth it to most people. Plus, from the homeowner’s perspective, why get a permit? That just adds to the cost.”
In San Francisco, laundry-to-landscape projects don’t require permits and the city offers an extensive guide available online with detailed instructions on how to get started.
Cheryl Hodges is an example of a graywater enthusiast who went the DIY route, rules be damned. She asked that her name be changed since her system isn’t permitted. She lives in an unincorporated area of Hays County and operates what she calls a “gypsy graywater system.”
“I take water from bathtubs, showers and sinks and put it on the landscape outside our house. It’s not a superbly piped system,” she said. “The system is somewhat informal, but it’s very much a system with real data. When I moved in the late ‘90s, the house was already built, so a lot of this is retrofitted. I had to make do with what already existed.”
Hodges’ 800-square-foot home is on a hill, and she can irrigate the downhill portion of her landscape, which totals about a quarter-acre and includes pear and citrus trees, with graywater. However, she admits that maintaining a graywater system requires some vigilance.
“We have directions in the bathroom and are very strict on what soaps we use,” she said. “Even as an English major, I have to pay attention to the chemistry. What are you using for dish soap? Are you washing your hair with something that has three different kinds of sodium?”
While Hodges is current on the science behind her system, chances are there are less knowledgeable people who could benefit from city guidance. However, my search for graywater resources in cities throughout drought-stricken Texas came up mostly dry.
In the desert city of El Paso, graywater has few fans at the city water utility. When the Observer first reached out to El Paso Water Utilities, a spokesperson informed us that graywater wasn’t part of their conservation efforts because of “water quality concerns.”
Soon after talking, Montoya called back to clarify: The city of El Paso does allow for graywater systems that adhere to city regulations. Customers need to submit drawings and an application to be considered. So far, according to an engineer with the city, there aren’t any permitted or unpermitted systems in the city, along with no plans to promote graywater use as a conservation method.
“One of the challenges with graywater is that it puts people in charge of their own water quality instead of the city,” Christina Montoya said.
But that’s not the view of those who study the issue.
“A lot of people think graywater is filthy, that because we’ve used it we need to get rid of it,” said Mike Martin, manager with the Texas A&M Energy Institute. “There are some constraints you have to follow and you have to think smart, but it’s perfectly OK to use.”
To show graywater’s potential value, the institute has been conducting a yearlong study looking at the effects of graywater on native plants. Researchers found that native plants not only tolerated the water, but “thrived,” according to Martin.
Wichita Falls, where rainfall is almost four feet below normal, is facing some of the most severe drought in the state. The city’s two drinking-water lakes are 22 percent full, the lowest levels since the mid-1950s.
The city mentions graywater on its website, but doesn’t provide any information on how to harvest it. Wichita Falls requires a permit for a system that necessitates plumbing work, but not for simply diverting water from a washing machine to a lawn—a much cheaper and low-tech alternative.
Bobby Teague, assistant director with the city, said that he hasn’t received any permit requests for an engineered system, but “hundreds, if not thousands, are diverting water via a bucket or some other way. They are filling up buckets while the shower is getting hot and carrying it to the trees, foundation or shrubs. It’s as simple as that.”
While graywater is at least considered a conservation method in Wichita Falls, there isn’t much in the way of education or implementation support for residents.
The same goes for San Antonio, another drought-stressed city going to greater and greater lengths to scare up water supplies.
While San Antonio doesn’t prevent people from setting up systems it’s also not actively promoting graywater through rebates, which are provided for other water-saving appliances, such as low-flow shower heads or toilets.
“In the city of San Antonio, graywater is a pretty uncommon practice,” said Karen Guz, conservation director of the San Antonio Water System. “But, if you wanted to take washing machine water and apply it instead of sending it down the drain, probably no one would bother you as long as it’s not a nuisance and there aren’t any complaints of smells or mosquitos. There has to be a place to send graywater.”
Guz stressed that even if a graywater system was collecting water from all possible sources (showers, sinks, washing machine, etc) it still wouldn’t produce enough volume to operate an automatic sprinkler system. However, graywater isn’t seen as a complete solution for all landscape irrigation needs by most enthusiasts; Rather it’s most useful to water a portion of a yard or specific trees. Batchelder’s advice to homeowners looking to set up a system: keep it simple.
“I’ve installed two permitted graywater systems, one in Austin and one in Los Angeles. Both were very labor intensive to install and prone to issues. Now, I just put my washing machine hose in a pipe that leads to my persimmon tree, or I move it to another part of the garden that is in need. The system cost me around 5 bucks, took me about 30 seconds to set up and it works beautifully.”
“The cities and water utilities are way, way behind the public on this issue,” said Ross of Glenrose Engineering. “I don’t necessarily think people need a permit, but I’m not opposed either. As long as it’s something that encourages people to do it and is most beneficial, as opposed to a permit system that just doesn’t make any sense at all.”
If drought forecasts remain the same, Texas cities may turn to graywater as another way to squeeze more out of diminishing water resources.
“There are a lot of people moving to Texas, rainfall amounts aren’t increasing and we know drought predictions for the next 15 to 20 years,” Martin with the Texas A&M Energy Institute said. “I think conservation is the best way to save, and if we conserve our potable water source, we need to do that at the home.”