Greywater: Legal Liability or Untapped Resource?

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You know how things are in the West.

People are a little more independent, a little more likely to take things into their own hands…

And conditions are a lot more arid, which makes people a lot more concerned about squeezing the last drop of utility out of every – you guessed it – last drop.

No wonder greywater controversies are starting to percolate.

Greywater refers to water that’s been used in a household’s sinks, showers, dishwashers, washing machines – anything but toilets.

It’s estimated that greywater makes up 50-80% of the thousands and thousands of gallons of residential wastewater we send to water treatment facilities every year.

And some say that’s a damn shame, because greywater can still be useful for landscape irrigation.

Greywater advocates say restrictive plumbing codes are the only thing holding up more widespread use of greywater.

So they advise people to just do it on their own.  Do-it-yourself systems are frequently referred to as “bootleg.”

Steve Bilson, the founder of ReWater Systems, has installed hundreds of legal greywater systems (costing about $7,000 each) and was a consultant to the development of California’s greywater legislation.  Yet the WaterCheckBiz website quoted him as saying, “The code is so overbuilt that I’m beginning to think it’s better to just have everyone do it bootleg.”

Groups like the Greywater Guerillas emerged, to help residents learn how to install their own greywater systems and bypass the permit process.  The group has now changed its name to “Greywater Action,” (find them at ) to better reflect their broad-based approach to building a sustainable water culture and infrastructure.

Advocates like Art Ludwig, of Oasis Design, maintain that greywater is the perfect poster child for a more environmentally friendly approach to building and regulation.

No one is exactly sure how many bootleg greywater systems are currently operating in the U.S.  For residential systems, the legal consequences seem to be minimal, but some say a less muddled regulations could lead to clearer water all around.

The benefits of greywater are clear:

  • Reduce use of fresh water
  • Reduce the strain on treatment plants or septic systems
  • Reduced use of energy and chemicals
  • Better treatment
  • Groundwater recharge
  • Better use of nutrients.

But where it gets a little murky is the issue of human waste.  Authorities tend to approach greywater systems as if they were septic systems, while advocates claim such controls aren’t necessary.

There are signs that attitudes might be changing.  A bill was recently introduced in the Wisconsin state legislature which would simplify and ease restrictions on residential greywater use.  In addition, the US Green Building Council and the City of Santa Barbara have already endorsed greywater standards, so it just might be the wave of the future.

Learn more about greywater at the Oasis Design Greywater Information Central web site,

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