The Grey(water) Area

By Katherine Pioli

by Katherine Pioli

Is greywater (the water that comes from bathtubs, showers, wash basins and clothes washers) use a boon or an environmental disaster? Facts fall on both sides. Bottom line: Look to conservation first.

pioli_greywaterThere is a story about the famous author and monkey-wrencher Edward Abbey doing his duty as an agitator at a public event in Tucson, Arizona where he spent the last years of his life. The city had just published a book on water conservation. City officials had gathered for the book’s official public release—a volume promised to make continued life, even expansion, in the desert city possible. After all of the self-congratulatory speeches had been made, the microphone somehow found its way into Abbey’s hands.
There is a story about the famous author and ,monkey-wrencher Edward Abby doing his duty as an agitator at a public event in Tucson, Arizona where he spent the last years of his life. The city had just published a book on water conservation. City officials had gathered for the book’s official public release—a volume promised to make continued life, even expansion, in the desert city possible. After all of the self-congratulatory speeches had been made, the microphone somehow found its way into Abbey’s hands.

You should just waste all of the water, Abbey reportedly said to a suddenly stunned audience: Pump the aquifer dry; drain all the reservoirs. Give people a real sense for life in the desert.

Of course, we all know that wasting a resource is not a good way to save it; presumably Abbey was speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But for people in places like Utah, living with an awareness that eventually the aquifers will be dry and the reservoirs empty might keep today’s water around a little bit longer. While Utah’s rainfall around the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains and through the I-15 corridor ranges 25-55 inches per year, the vast majority of the state sees much less. In fact, the state’s cumulative average is an annual 15 inches of rainfall.

It comes down to the old adage, “waste not, want not.”

Even with this simple saying in mind, however, the question presents itself: What counts as wasted water? Is it the water that runs from your faucet while you wash the dishes? Is it the gallons that wash and rinse your clothes in the laundry? For people who see greywater as the solution for water shortages, all of these sources are indeed points of wasted water.

Greywater is the water that comes from bathtubs, showers, washbasins and clothes washers (but not toilets; water from septic systems is referred to as blackwater).

Most proposed, and realized, greywater systems relegate it to irrigation and agricultural use. Certainly we would not want this untreated water to re-circulate through household taps along with culinary water. At the same time, using it to water park lawns and alfalfa fields could save good, clean, potable culinary water for what it’s truly needed for.

Officials in Utah started thinking about greywater systems in 2005 with the completion of a new state water plan which included provisions for water re-use. The report found that “as the population of Utah grows, water demand will increase. Water reuse is an important option to help meet some of these growing demands.” The plan saw Northern Utah as having great potential for water reuse, mostly for “municipal irrigation systems that serve residential landscapes or large landscapes such as golf courses, parks and schools.”

The proposal to earmark “gently used” water for irrigating park lawns seems logical. After all, similar projects pioneered by California began irrigating fields of corn, barley and alfalfa with reclaimed water as early as 1912. By the 1920s irrigation projects using reclaimed water existed throughout California and Arizona. With such examples of long-standing greywater usage, Utah’s 2005 plan appears not only logical, but timely.

However, facts regarding greywater land on both sides, pro and con. Stephanie Duer, water conservation coordinator at the Salt Lake Department of Public Utilities, is on the “con” side. It is Duer’s responsibility to identify, implement, evaluate and manage the city water programs. She wonders if people really understand the meaning of greywater.


Stephanie Duer, water conservation coordinator at the Salt Lake Department of Public Utilities. Photo by John deJong

“[Some] greywater contains body waste,” says Duer. “When you bathe, that water running down the shower drain can contain sweat, saliva, bacteria, pathogens, skin diseases. The water from your washing machine has everything that was cleaned off of your underwear and other clothes—blood, food particles, fatty acids. All of these things are in greywater.” It is an image that would give anyone second thoughts about greywater. Especially when it comes from someone else’s shower.

Duer is well aware of the rising interest in greywater systems. She remembers when interest began to peak in the early ’70s due in part to years of drought. Cornell University was among a number of institutions in the eastern United States that, at the time, began researching water reuse. The outcome from such studies was entirely positive. Some even showed increased crop productivity when irrigated with greywater.

Cornell University and the other institutions conducting studies on greywater are all located in the eastern U.S. Duer points out that conditions are very, very different in the West—so different that the results of these studies would have been quite different, had they been conducted here.

“Back East, where these tests were originally done, you have high quantities of rainwater, acidic soils due to thousands of years of forests, and acidic water. All of these factors lead to soils high in microbial activity—causing things to decompose. So you have an active soil community, low pH and rainwater flushing things out of the soil. All this contributes to the breaking down of the greywater,” says Duer.

Now compare that to Utah, where the soil and the water are alkaline. There is very little rainwater to cause leeching through the soil. The microbial count is extremely low and not much organic material exists naturally in the soil. “None of the environmental conditions found back East exist here,” says Duer, coming to the head of her argument. “Decompo­sition takes a really long time in this environment, so what happens in the West is a build up of fatty acids and soluble solids in the soil as a result of greywater use.” This can mean irreparable damage to soil health and perhaps potential public health issues.

Some California communities where greywater use has been allowed since the ’70s are now trying to re­scind their laws. What seemed like such a good idea has, over time, proven to be unsustainable. “Com­munities are now facing soil death because of greywater. You can’t grow anything in dead soil,” says Duer.

Phoenix, Arizona provides a perfect example of some of the public health hazards related to greywater irrigating. Some households in the city are participating in a greywater experiment, watering their yards using subterranean methods—watering the soil from below the surface is a common practice when using greywater, in an attempt to minimize contact between humans and untreated water. Even with this precaution, 4% of the participating homes show on the surface of the soil standing colonies of E. Coli.

As a city worker responsible for public health, Duer is dubious. “What level of risk am I willing to take for the public that I serve?” she asks rhetorically. “Risks such as these do not seem acceptable to me, not with the alternative water conservation measures that are available.”


Fred Montague, professor of biology at the University of Utah. Photo by John deJong

Fred Montague understands Duer’s evaluation of greywater in the west. A professor of biology at the University of Utah, Montague teaches classes on global environmental issues; he also teaches gardening to his students. As a person who understands the west’s ecology, he admits that our alkaline soils are not entirely suited to greywater. Yet Montague is still trying to create a working greywater system.

Outside the city, in rural northern Utah, Fred Montague homesteads land with his wife, Pat. Here, they have designed a house to capture greywater.

According to Montague, Arizona and California’s failures are not something to fear, but lessons to learn from. As he says, there is no magic bullet solution. Water conservation, like energy, has to be a hybrid of many practices.

The Montagues have been gathering and reusing water from almost every source in and around their house for 14 years. They collect rainwater, keeping it in covered containers. They reuse the rinse water from their sinks and laundry. They collect “phantom water,” a term Fred uses for clean, unused water lost down drains as people wait for it to heat up or cool down.

But he understands as a scientist how a westerner must use this recycled commodity. His garden beds are designed to handle it as if the water fell on rich east coast soil: The raised beds, with plenty of pH-lowering organic matter, allow the water to filter through, so that the salts and other compounds found in the untreated water do not accumulate on the soil surface.

The fact is, few people have the knowledge and determination to handle greywater with such skill. This reality does not escape Duer.

“Again, the question of conservation goes back to use,” she says, “how we use water and how we maintain our facilities.” For instance, she sees yards where people are trying to conserve on water. They may have little or no turf and a drip irrigation system, but they have a broken tube leaking water where there are no plants. “I can’t expect people to maintain complicated greywater systems in their homes if they won’t change a broken piece of irrigation,” she says.

Before making the huge leap to greywater, she sees plenty of places where people can make little changes, easy adjustments, and become more water efficient. After all, if the point of greywater is water conservation, why ignore all the other areas also impacted by water use?

In Salt Lake City, residental use adds up to the greatest percentage of water consumed in the city—69% goes to residential use, which is 183 gallons per capita per day (gpcd). (Gallons per capita per day measures the amount of water going through the treatment facility and divides it by the number of residents that the facility serves. It does not count use by restaurants, hospitals, hotels or the thousands of people who commute into the city everyday for work and use city water.) The over all gallons per capita for the city is estimated at around 218 per day while residential use is 183 gallons per day. A closer look at residential water use finds that 62% is used for outdoor application.

“It seems to me we have a long way to go before we have to depend on greywater,” says Duer. Once we reach that point, however, she will be ready.

“There are opportunities to use greywater in closed systems. For example, water used in sinks could flush toilets.” Many municipalities, including Salt Lake City, are looking at well-managed, city-regulated use of this kind. In fact, in Salt Lake’s northwest quadrant, new housing developments are being built with alternative water systems: dual piping, also called “purple piping.” One system runs to culinary sources while another carries less treated water to places that don’t require culinary water.

But until the time comes that requires all households to engage in this level of conservation, Duer is perfectly happy to stick to the small stuff. It really adds up, she says.

“I think of greywater like recycling, the last step in the three Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle. Recycling is fun because you still get to consume, but it has a heavy energy footprint. The best practice is to reduce consumption,” she says. The same is true with water.

So before greywater becomes the only solution, we can make many other lifestyle changes. Duer advises:  “Think about your daily water use. Fix leaks. Be efficient. Become water-aware.”

Catching and using rainwater

The catch: With the exception of downtown’s Mark Miller dealership, it’s illegal

Imagine an auto dealership with LEED gold certification (LEED is a third-party program certifying high performance green buildings). It seems impossible, but the Mark Miller dealership in downtown Salt Lake actually achieved this last year. A great part of their certification rating comes from the fact that the building and grounds are very water efficient. In fact, the dealership uses a rainwater catchment system.

Rainwater catchment is considered a subcategory of greywater. It, too, is water that could be used in place of treated culinary water for projects such as irrigation. As the name implies, the water source is rain or snow gathered off of surfaces before it is lost to the ground, gutters and sewers.

The Mark Miller building collects rainwater off the dealership roof, storing up to 80,000 gallons in an underground cistern. The water is then used in a subterranean watering system for their lawns and xeriscape.

This type of project is something that the Salt Lake Depart­ment of Public Utilities and Stephanie Duer, water conservation coordinator, would like to see more of. Proliferation of such rain catchment projects appeared likely with the start of Utah’s 2009 legislative session. Two Senate Bills (SB) were introduced addressing rainwater catchment. The more useful of the two, according to those in the know, was SB 58.

Senate Bill 58 authorized a public water supplier—in the case of Salt Lake, the city Department of Public Utilities—to allow a person in its service area to capture and beneficially use precipitation under certain circumstances. It established catchment system construction standards but did not limit harvesting capacity as long as harvests remained within available water rights. In short, it allowed everyone from a family house to a car dealership to collect and use rainwater.

The bill lost momentum before the session ended and the issue remains unresolved. Without this bill, rainwater catchment systems remain illegal.

That is why the huge rain catchment system on the Westminster College campus remains unused. Look closely at the college’s new Astroturf soccer field. It is split down the middle with each side sloping slightly down from the center to the sides. The design allows rainwater and snow melt to flow right into a series of grates placed along the perimeter of the field. The water then funnels through drains into four corrugated plastic tubes buried under the parking garage beneath the field. The water sits in these insulated tubes waiting to be pumped into the watering system used for the college’s landscape. But it has never been used. Without bill 58, or one similar, it won’t be. 

So why can the Mark Miller dealership use a rainwater and groundwater catchment system and not Westminster College? The dealership’s plan for LEED certification allowed the city to help. By law, all waters in a state, above or below ground, belong to the people of the state. Individuals and cities buy the right to use these waters, providing they state the amount of water they are using, the intended use and place of diversion. Salt Lake City files for beneficial public use of a certain amount of water and can acquire rights for future use. Stephanie Duer describes it as having a savings bond: The right to use exists but is not yet being tapped. The department of public utilities was able to cover the dealership under the city’s water rights.

The same agreement could be extended to other LEED buildings around the city, but a bill allowing and regulating rainwater use would create far less paperwork. That is why passing a bill like 58 is so important. Under such a bill almost anyone could use rainwater under the water rights owned by the public utilities. That is good project for next year’s legislative session.

“Dirt” phobia

Since the late 1970s, the U.S. population has grown by over half. But our water consumption has tripled.
With the shower and the washer weighing in as the biggest indoor water consumers for most households, there’s evidence Americans (and perhaps most of the “civilized” world) have become clean freaks. The Saturday night bath of yesteryear has evolved into the daily shower. The cleanliness obsession has extended to our clothing, as well, where we are more inclined than in the past to wash clothes after one wearing—in more detergent than is necessary.

•    If hydro is your therapy, at least trim a minute or two off of your shower time—it adds up. And make sure yours has the latest low-flow shower head—using only 1 to 2.5 gallons per minute (older styles use 4-6 gpm). Can’t tell? Hold a one-gallon pail under the showerhead and see how many seconds it takes to fill.
•    Frontload washers use 30-60% less water. When you need a new washer, choose this type. Choose this one at the laundromat, too, if you can do big loads. And only toss clothes into the laundry bag that need laundering. Read the label and use only the amount of detergent recommended by the manufacturer—especially if you’re using a “green” detergent: They frequently require considerably less, and overuse can leave an unpleasant film on your clothing and inside the machine.

Be hydro-wise

•    Don’t water the road; if you use a sprinkler system, notice where the water is going.
•    Overwatering a lawn means you’ll have to mow sooner; don’t.
•    If you have a vegetable or flower garden, keep it well mulched (but only once the plants are established, as mulch can suck much-needed nitrogen from the soil).
•    Read before you buy and plant: Choose  trees, shrubs and plants that, once established, have low-water needs. If you buy from a reputable dealer, such as Western Garden Center, Cactus & Tropicals or Traces, ask their knowledgeable employees. If you’re at a grocery store or big box… read the label, Google the plant on your phone, or ask a fellow shopper who looks smarter than you.
•    Fix leaks—little drips add up!

Katherine Pioli is a CATALYST staff writer who spends her summers in Wyoming working as a fire fighter for the Forest Service. We miss her.

This article was originally published on June 29, 2009.