5 strategies to make L.A. graywater-ready

5 strategies to make L.A. graywater-ready

Los Angeles has crossed the rubicon by implementing unprecedented citywide water reduction goals. L.A.'s compelling decision comes in response to the devastating drought affecting the entire state of California, projections for another dry winter and the concern that, with climate change, we could be experiencing a "new normal."

Implications of the drought — fierce wildfires, water shortages and restrictions, and potentially staggering agricultural losses — on the 38 million people who call California their home are daunting, especially to those living in the arid southern region.  Currently, Los Angeles consumes an alarming 685 million cubic meters per year of potable water. That's enough water to fill 274,178 Olympic-size pools. Roughly 68 percent of that is used in our homes and yards.

The mayor therefore has called on various departments within the city to take action, from reducing irrigation at city-owned facilities to developing plans to convert street medians to no- and low-water use landscaping. The mayor also has requested that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power report on the potential to establish additional cost-effective commercial, industrial and residential rebate and/or educational programs for reducing water, such as graywater systems.

This is an important step for Los Angeles; increasing the use of residential graywater — the water from our washing machines and bathroom faucets, showers and baths — for non-potable demands such as flushing toilets or landscape irrigation will result in dramatic water savings throughout the city. According to a recent study (PDF), onsite graywater recycling can reduce potable water demand by 27 percent and 38 percent in single-family and multi-family homes, respectively. And if just 10 percent of the city's residents participate in graywater recycling, L.A. will be able to reduce:

• water supply and treatment-related energy by 43,000 MWh per year
• potable water demand by 2 percent
• wastewater treatment load by 3 percent

Los Angeles shouldn't stop with graywater in homes. Up north, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission recently launched an ambitious non-potable water program that creates a streamlined process for new commercial, multi-family and mixed-use developments that wish to collect, treat and reuse alternative water sources for toilet flushing, irrigation and other non-potable demands.

So, what's standing in our way? Historically, the biggest barriers to more widespread use of graywater systems in Los Angeles (and elsewhere in California) has been:

• public awareness about how graywater can be used in our homes and yards to reduce water consumption
• the confusing, time-consuming and costly permitting process
• the expense of the graywater systems themselves

However, many cities such as San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Santa Rosa are overcoming these barriers by implementing more proactive and innovative policies. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission developed a graywater design manual (PDF) to promote safe and effective graywater use, as well as providing important rebates and incentives. And the city of Santa Clara provides rebates that combine incentives for graywater use with other outdoor conservation measures to encourage customers to create truly efficient landscapes appropriate for the needs of their household.

Here are five recommendations for increasing graywater use in Los Angeles. These suggestions will help lower the cost to Angelenos and encourage adoption of graywater recycling systems.

1. Home graywater education

Create a user-friendly website to help educate the public on graywater (and other water saving tips), provide information about the permitting process and host workshops on water efficient technologies. The Internet is an important resource for proliferation of information and a user-friendly website on the city's sustainability efforts would help popularize graywater and water-efficient technologies through community engagement, social media, community workshops and partnerships with local environmental groups. Sydney, Australia hosts a great website that is both attractive and informative.

2. Streamlined permitting and permit rebates

San Francisco offers a streamlined program for graywater projects that require permits. The SFPUC program includes helpful tools such as a non-potable water calculator and a step-by-step guidebook for the permitting process. Additionally, the SFPUC offers a rebate up to $225 toward the costs of the Department of Building inspection permit. Adjustments to the permitting process also should include education for permitting authorities to ensure consistent messaging to the public about permit requirements.

3. Rebate program for graywater systems

Decreasing the high upfront costs of retrofitting and system capital costs would decrease the greatest barrier to graywater sytems for property owners. There are multiple ways for implementing a rebate program for graywater systems. Santa Clara, mentioned previously, is one example of a good program. Santa Clara homeowners may qualify for both the graywater laundry-to-landscape rebate program (up to $200) and the landscape rebate program ($2 per square foot) for converting high water-using landscape into a landscape more suitable for graywater systems, such as planting fruit trees. An alternative program is a direct install pilot program. Long Beach experimented with a similar program, where 35 homes were selected through a lottery system to have laundry-to-landscape systems installed in their homes.

4. Modify the building code to require new homes to be 'graywater-ready'

"Graywater-ready" homes include dual plumbing to collect graywater separately from blackwater in new single-family homes. Currently, Tucson, Ariz., requires residential construction to provide plumbing for facilitating onsite graywater use. Other cities in California are considering similar requirements.

5. Adopt a non-potable water program for new commercial buildings in Los Angeles

For example, SFPUC offers a streamline permitting process for graywater systems for new commercial, multi-family, mixed use developments and other non-potable uses.

The key is that all the pieces need to be in place to ensure a successful graywater program. The rebates and incentives are no good if no one is looking for them or the permitting process is too confusing.

What can we do at home to help L.A. reach this new water use goal? Considering that about 45 percent of the city lives in single family homes and nearly 70 percent of all water use occurs outdoors, one of the easiest things homeowners can do is to install a laundry-to-landscape graywater system, or use the wastewater from your clothes washer to irrigate your landscape. In California, you no longer need a permit for this type of system as long as you meet basic requirements — so consider diverting this water now. Click here to learn more about how to install a laundry-to-landscape system.

This article originally appeared at NRDC Switchboard. Top photo credit: Los Angeles Waterkeeper.