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A key consultant in drafting and lobbying for the code was Steve Bilson, founder of ReWater Systems, a company that manufactures and installs legal graywater irrigation systems. While his firm has installed more than 1,000 code-compliant systems, he's publicly admitted that the current code is so overly detailed that bootlegged systems make more sense in many circumstances.
Even some local water officials, increasingly anxious about the level of their shrinking reservoirs, question the code's logic. Generally steering clear of the argument, they've grown accustomed to turning a blind eye on illegal conservation activity. "We encourage water conservation, and how the homeowner does it is really their call," said EBMUD Water Conservation Administrator Dick Bennett, who notes that in the summertime, about half of all water used indoors can be put into the landscape. Guerrilla graywater installers, he added "are to be commended in the sense that they're saving water."
Bennett traces the state plumbing code's current restrictions back to the state health department in the '90s, which he said was against allowing graywater use altogether. In a compromise, he said, health officials consented to the guidelines with the addition of a clause requiring that graywater be transmitted nine inches underground — to avoid possible surface leakage of contaminated water. Such a depth not only makes it more complicated and costly to lay piping, it prohibits using graywater for the irrigation of lawns and other shallow-rooted inedible plants that typically require heavy irrigation.
"That part of the code is pretty onerous," said Bennett, expressing hope that legislative pressure might mount to revise the code during current drought conditions. "It makes it a lot harder for the average person to deliver it legally." Bennett referred to the California droughts of 1976 and 1988, when there was a ban on all outside water use and people ran hoses outside their houses or collected buckets to water their gardens. Although blatantly illegal, he never heard of any citations being issued.
In contract, he added, Arizona's plumbing code allows graywater to be applied at the surface with a drip system. While it can't be spayed, it doesn't necessitate a deep trench, and there have never been health issues associated with that. "Arizona's doing it," he said. "Why isn't it good enough for California?"
But changing a fourteen-year-old regulation is no easy task, as was made abundantly clear when a state Department of Health Services spokeswoman, asked about the graywater code, said it was completely under the jurisdiction of the water conservation department. However, Simon Eching, an official with the latter agency responded: "Whatever was decided was based on health concerns. We can't revise the law by ourselves."
On a recent evening, Allen proudly displayed the plumbing in the North Oakland house that she co-owns. Named House of Appropriate Urban Technology, or HAUT House, it has six separate graywater systems, one for each fixture, including nearly every sink and shower as well as the clothes washer. In each system, the used water is diverted from the drain, piped either directly to the irrigation system in the garden, or into large holding drums where it's left to settle before hitting the plants. A series of valves control the flow and direction of the system. Toilet water, considered black water, is never supposed to be reused, but since the idea of flushing gallons of potable water down the drain is unacceptable to Allen, she recently set up a waterless composting toilet in one of her bathrooms. The tiled wooden box toilet has two five-gallon collection containers, one for feces and one for urine. The system is sealed to prevent any odor from being released, and after each use, woodchips are added. When full, the containers are emptied through a hatch on the side of the house into outside drums, where the feces compost for a year. In the other bathroom, she disconnected the pipe under the sink and replaced it with a bucket. When full, she pours the water into the toilet bowl to flush it.
Allen's lush vegetable garden, shaded by verdant kiwi and apricot trees, eagerly receives her graywater. There's not much plumbing to see; most of it is buried well underground, positioned to soak into the mulch and water the deep-rooted plants. Among the most visible installations is a wetland constructed in an old bathtub, filled with gravel and tall cattails, the roots of which purify the gray water. Although a testament to nature's cleaning ability, Allen said such a system ends up sucking up too much water and lacks the efficiency of direct graywater irrigation.
She insists that many of the potential bacterial health issues can be easily abated by setting up a system that goes immediately into the ground, is deep enough to never surface, and evenly irrigates either non-edible plants or ones that produce fruit far above the ground. It's also important, she notes, to use eco-friendly shampoos and soaps and to never pour bleach or other toxic chemicals down the drain.
"When you shower, your plants are getting watered," she said. "These are systems that are really simple. There are no tanks and pumps and this and that. It's important to look at low tech."
The materials for each of Allen's various graywater installations cost between $30 and $200. In contrast, the Eco-House, a Berkeley demonstration house operated by the Ecology Center, applied for a permit to build its graywater system, a far more complex installation that also includes a constructed wetland. Materials for the code-compliant project cost around $4,000.
Oakland resident Christina Bertea has been a licensed plumber for more than ten years, but just recently got involved with the Guerrillas. A strong proponent of low-tech systems, she is hesitant to install them professionally because of the code issues.
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