When Cat and Jonney Ahmanson bought their house in Eagle Rock, the backyard was full of tangled weeds. Rather than put in grass or dirt, the newlyweds worked with landscape designer Kim Kelly and greywater expert Leigh Jerrard to create a California dreamscape. Now over the next year, as water from their shower, sink and washing machine flows out back, their yard will bloom with fruit trees, succulents and native flowers — drought or not.
“I was a little nervous, because no one knew what greywater was,” says Cat Ahmanson, 28. “The plumbers didn’t even know. But these plants are so happy.”
The concept of greywater is deceptively simple: Water used for washing that would normally be sent down the sewer, where it has its “solids” removed and is then poured, crystal-clear and at great cost, into the Pacific Ocean, is instead kept by its original users to irrigate the land and replenish the watershed.
Tucson and San Francisco have promoted greywater by offering rebates to residents.
But the city of Los Angeles is years behind in adopting such incentives, thanks to opposition from the Department of Water and Power.
“Southern California is embarrassingly lacking in supporting people” to encourage the switch to greywater, says Laura Allen of Greywater Action. “L.A. DWP is the biggest provider [of water locally], and they really haven’t done anything.”
While nearly 80 percent of California’s water is consumed by agriculture, tremendous pressure is on urban users to cut back their use of the other 20 percent. L.A.’s key sources of water, including the California Delta, Owens Valley and Colorado River, are at severely low levels and Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered residents statewide to slash water use by 25 percent.
Unlike sewage from toilets, greywater is considered uncontaminated. The simplest greywater system is called by some “laundry-to-landscape” because a pipe runs straight from the washing machine to plants. It doesn’t even require a city permit, although more complex branch-drain systems do.
“I thought it would be like, ‘Oh God, I have to go to Whole Foods and buy all these things,'” Cat Ahmanson says. “It’s really not much. We use a lot of Dr. Bronner’s, laundry detergent from Trader Joe’s. … It does require a little more attention, but we get to see our yard and garden flourish.”
Greywater experts don’t know exactly how much water is saved by the technique, but Allen says informal research conducted by her organization suggests a reduction of 16 percent to 40 percent.
“It’s one of the most affordable and practical things you can do,” Allen says.
The DWP sees it differently. The city offers rebates of up to $250,000 for greywater systems only to commercial properties and multifamily residences. The DWP, which is seeking a series of water rate hikes from residents, has taken the formal position that the city should not pay to encourage greywater systems in individual homes.
In a long-awaited report presented June 1, the DWP recommended against rebates for single-family residences. According to Penny Falcon, a DWP spokeswoman, some studies the DWP reviewed showed that residents using greywater “potentially used more water than they had prior.”
“It’s a behavior-use mechanism,” she says. “There’s a valve that you use to turn on greywater” to flow outside. People also can “close that valve, and you have it go to the sewer.” But, she says, if the homeowner fails to flip the valve back so that it “doesn’t get reopened … then we will see no water savings.”
She says this potential issue makes it difficult for DWP to know if water savings are guaranteed from single-family homes, and thus hard for the department to justify greywater rebates.
San Francisco–based WaterNow has far different statistics. “Some studies say that if you installed greywater in just 10 percent of Southern California homes,” says Cynthia Koehler, the organization’s executive director, “you would be equaling the output of a desalination facility.”
There’s mounting criticism of DWP as it embraces “turf replacement” rebates to cover yards with gravel — a program whose environmental and aesthetic problems now are being questioned. But at the same time, the publicly owned utility won’t get behind a practice that waters gardens even as it returns the water to the ground and to the broader Los Angeles watershed.
Some experts blame old ideas about plumbing for the city’s hesitancy to implement greywater incentives at the single-family home level.
“Greywater violates the essential plumber’s creed: There is water and there is wastewater,” Jerrard says, “and never the twain shall meet.”
Others claim the DWP’s motive is financial. Allen notes that the city has long done business with contractors who would suffer a financial hit if water-saving systems such as greywater were to take off. “It’s just, ‘Let’s give a lot of money to contracting,’” she says.
But, Allen adds, “The legacy of how Southern California got water isn’t sustainable. [The Metropolitan Water District] is giving $75 rebates for rain barrels. I’m all for rain buckets. But not above greywater.”
In fact, architect Jeremy Levine says the most difficult hurdle he faces in getting clients to switch to greywater is overcoming the notion that plants can’t handle the “dirt” found in household water.
“Imagine telling people that shower water is going to go into that fruit tree,” he says. “On some intuitive level, that doesn’t make sense. It’s just your gut reaction.”
But Levine has thought this through a bit further. “The filthiest stuff is not you taking a shower,” he says. “Think of water flowing off your roof, think about your fertilizer. The bacteria coming off you is much less toxic than that.”
Most of his clients, Levine says, are converts. “Once it works,” he says, “they love it.”
Eurie Chung had exactly that reaction. The 36-year-old documentary producer and editor recently installed a greywater system in her home in Silver Lake. A pipe runs directly from her washer to six fruit trees, bearing lemons, persimmons, peaches, apples, figs and pecans.
Chung, who describes herself as “not a botanist,” says that she considered a handful of ways to be more environmentally conscious after buying the house, including installing solar panels and more expansive water-conservation systems. Greywater was the most cost-efficient and practical, and still had a big impact.
“When you’re weighing outlay of cash, this just makes the most sense,” she says. In the year since her system was installed, Chung’s trees have shot up from planted sticks to more than 6 feet tall.
“I wash my clothes and my plants are watered,” she says. “You don’t even have to think about it.”