Greywater recycling systems first became legal in California in 1989, but with onerous permitting fees and red tape, few homeowners actually bothered to file for permits, choosing to work within the limited framework for greywater systems that didn’t require a permit, or working with plumbers who were willing to look the other way. In an effort to make greywater systems more feasible and attractive to more people, legislation passed in San Francisco, Marin, Santa Barbara, and other California counties has eliminated the permitting fee and inspection for homeowners seeking to build water recycling systems.[1]

Eliminating permit fees wouldn’t really hurt the state and local government revenue. Santa Barbara issued a mere ten greywater permits between 1989 and 2009. San Francisco has issued five permits for such systems since 2012. While there are no significant studies of greywater usage, anecdotal evidence from homeowners, plumbers, and greywater activists suggest that the actual number of greywater systems in use is much higher than that. Ecological systems engineer Art Ludwig estimates that 8,000 unpermitted greywater systems were built for every permit granted over the last twenty years based on data from a soap company study.[2]

Under current California law, greywater systems using water only from washing machines can be constructed in a single family home without a permit. These systems must have an easy way for water to flow back into the sewer or septic system, discharge greywater under a 2” inch cover of mulch, plastic, or stones, have a maintenance manual, and keep the water on the same property on which it is produced. Greywater systems using water from showers and bathroom sinks do, however, require a permit, except in the few California counties mentioned above. Kitchen greywater use is illegal California.

If greywater permitting restrictions haven’t stopped some enterprising Californians from going underground, what’s the problem? According to Art Ludwig and other greywater activists, the current regulations serve to dissuade professionals from taking on water recycling projects, leaving homeowners to figure it out themselves. According to Ludwig, “The current greywater regulation approach hinders best sustainability practices, and undermines respect for codes in general.”[3]

In the midst of it’s historic and unrelenting drought, California could stand to learn a thing or two from Australia’s response to the epic thirteen-year-drought known as “The Big Dry.” Two thirds of Australian homes have water-recycling systems, a significant contrast to the only thirteen percent of Californian homes currently using greywater systems.[4]

For more information visit Integrated Design 360.