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San Diego Eases Graywater Rules

Nicholas McVicker
San Diego Eases Graywater Rules
San Diego Eases Graywater Rules
San Diego city officials approved new rules yesterday that make it easier for residents to tap into a water source they already use.

The San Diego City Council is making it easier to allow people to soak their landscaping without using drinkable water. The council eased the rules and requirements for graywater systems that take once-used water from laundries or showers and allow it to feed plants.


Steven Bailey is intimately familiar in large part because he has a passion for tropical fruit. But those plants are thirsty and so are the other plants he grows around his El Cajon home.

"I wanted to be able to have a living fence," Bailey said. "Be able to produce fruits and vegetables so that I can know where my food was coming from."

Bailey is just as passionate about being frugal, so he started thinking about ways to feed his backyard garden without paying huge water bills. One answer came from the washing machine in his garage. A small alteration and he had a way to funnel the used water into his yard.

"Here we have a three way valve, so if I want it to go to the landscape, the arrow shows (it to siphon off) to the landscape," Bailey said. "If we need to use bleach or anything, we just turn this and our arrow goes out to the sewer, which goes down to the regular sewer pipe."

The PVC pipe that runs to his side yard feeds several guava trees. He's also tapping into water going down the shower drain. A quick visit to the home's crawlspace reveals the key.


"So all we had to do was make a cut into our ABS," Bailey said. He pointed to a valve where the shower drain pokes below the floor. "That's a three-way Jacuzzi valve. So as you can tell, it's off to the sewer and so it's going to the landscape."

Add in his 1,700-gallon rainwater tank that captures runoff from his roof, and Bailey says he only buys municipal water for his yard during the hottest part of the summer.

Josh Robinson is the director of San Diego's Sustainable Living Institute. Robinson said feeding reclaimed graywater to landscaping could save a household 16,000 gallons of water a year.

"And if we can get multiple residents through San Diego inspired, trained, shown how to do it on their own, we can have a significant savings in water," Robinson said.

The Institute launched the Great Graywater Challenge. Robinson wants 365 San Diego households – one a day – to install a graywater system this year.

"Graywater is one of those things where each household has this perennial spring that's built right into it. If we could just tap right into it we would have this year-round water that otherwise is just going to waste," Robinson said.

The goal is to save five million gallons of water next year.

Nicholas McVicker

"You will save money," said Sherri Lightner, San Diego City Council District 1. "That's a very good reason to do it. Because your demand for water use outside if you have a yard or garden, any landscaping whatsoever, could be watered with your laundry water."

Lightner pushed the city of San Diego to make it easier to install graywater systems. Laundry water systems and set-ups that generate less than 240 gallons of water a day and don't need a pump wouldn't need a permit. And homeowners wouldn't need to have their yards tested to make sure the soil can absorb the water.

San Diego resident Candace Vanderhoff knows the permitting system is daunting because she's gone through it. The process took her more than a year.

"The water has to be able to infiltrate and go into the soil," Vanderhoff said. "One of the big issues with the permitting is they don't want the water pooling and ponding and overflowing into your neighbor's, or for children or pets to play in the water. And so it has to be able to percolate into the soil."

Vanderhoff followed through and installed a lot of small improvements that made a huge difference.

Nicholas McVicker

"We use very little potable water," Vanderhoff said. "I have a shower graywater system, a laundry graywater system, about six sets of rain tanks on the property between 400 and 300 gallon tanks. Set up at different points so those can water the landscape. But I also have a rain garden, bioswales and we have great soil."

Vanderhoff applauds the effort to make graywater systems easier to install in San Diego. However, she also said care needs to be taken to do it right. She worries a few poorly installed systems could prompt the city to roll back the advances that were made this week.