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DRIP TRIP: Graywater from the Smith family washing machine runs into a filter of wood chip mulch. From there it disperses into the soil.

Clean Green Watering Machine

The graywater movement is helping Santa Cruzans rethink what happens at the other end of the drain

By Maria Grusauskas

EVERY TIME Anne Smith washes her kids' grass-stained sports uniforms, her agapanthus gets watered too. It's a time-saving, water-conserving trick that may one day become commonplace as more and more people discover the benefits of recycling household "graywater."

That dirty water laden with detergent, hair and other unmentionable cooties that drain from our washing machines, bathroom sinks and showers classifies as graywater, and it makes up more than half the average household's water waste. Since 1928, graywater has been flushed into city sewers along with the "blackwater" that drains from toilets and kitchen sinks, sent to a water treatment center on Bay Street and later expelled into the ocean via Monterey Bay. But with droughts, heightened awareness of water scarcity and a new emphasis on conservation, the fate of gray wastewater is beginning to change. And Santa Cruz, not surprisingly, is at the forefront of a growing movement to legally divert household graywater away from the sewer system and into the soil, where it can provide moisture for trees and other plants and recharge long-depleted water tables.

In January, the California Building Standards Commission adopted a new plumbing code legalizing graywater reuse in residential buildings, a breakthrough that gives residents the go-ahead to rig up their own systems. Proponents say it can save money in the long run, relieve overstressed septic systems and conserve the life-giving element. Most importantly, perhaps, it can help change the way people think about their water use.

"Instead of calling it wastewater and shipping it downstream, graywater [reuse] goes with the idea that we all live downstream," says Ken Foster of Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping, a member of the Central Coast Graywater Alliance. "In nature there is no such thing as waste. One thing's waste is another's food. Graywater reuse transforms our concept of waste." 

Unlike blackwater, graywater is safe and abundant enough to use for irrigating landscape and certain types of garden plants (it's not recommended for root crops, for example). If done right, the benefits can be manifold.

For the Smith family, a laundry-to-landscape system that directs laundry water around the garden via a pipe connected to their washing machine provided an invaluable solution to the nightmares caused by an overstressed septic system. Diverting thousands of gallons monthly from a saturated leach field in their case has meant a savings of $30,000–$40,000, the cost of hooking up to the city septic system or installing a new leach field.

Thanks to the recent legalization of graywater diversion systems, landscapers and conservationists throughout Santa Cruz are preparing workshops and classes to teach folks how to install laundry-to-landscape systems that are up to code, and the Soquel Creek Water District has recently approved a $75 rebate for laundry-to-landscape systems, effective this July.

Mother Earth Knows Best

All laundry-to-landscape systems, whether simple or complex, rely on one fundamental component: the soil's natural "food web." The microbes and insects that live in soil act as a biological filtration community, breaking down and using as fuel the microscopic bacteria, potential pathogens, lint and hair that come out in the wash water. Conveniently, these fungal microbes and insects that love to eat nasty things thrive in wood chip mulch, a garden's best friend.

Although their powers are great, these microbes are not skilled at breaking down chemicals, so laundry-to-landscape users should refrain from washing their socks in Clorox and should use only ecologically safe detergents. Don't let your disappointing experiment with all-natural plant-derived antiperspirant deter you; there are many graywater-friendly detergents on the market with effective cleaning ingredients like papaya enzyme. Anne Smith vouches for them: according to her, they "work great."

Graywater has not been granted above-ground rights, and legally it must never see the light of day. At least two inches of wood chip or other mulch is recommended to cover the areas where graywater is expelled into the soil. It is also unsanitary to allow graywater to pool on the ground's surface or to run it through a sprinkler system to spray the leaves of your salad greens, since these methods don't allow proper filtration. Plus, that would just be nasty. And that's not what graywater's about.


GREENBACK EFFECT: The Smiths' graywater system is helping to prolong the life of their septic system.

The Options

The most basic laundry-to-landscape model is cheap and easy. According to Sherry Bryan of EcoAction and the California Graywater Alliance, the cost of a simple system is between $100 and $200, and it's simple enough that even the mechanically impaired among us could learn how to install it. This system involves a three-way valve that connects an external pipe to the washing machine. The washing machine's pump then propels the water through the pipe, which can be perforated in certain areas—say, under the rose bushes or apple tree.

The three-way valve is crucial here. Did your space cadet roommate mistake Comet for your ecofriendly detergent again? Flip the valve from "landscape" to "sewer" and the roots of your prized fig tree will be spared the caustic chemical burns. The graywater flow should also be redirected to the sewer in times of heavy rain to prevent flooding the garden.

According to Bryan, the simplest branch drain laundry-to-landscape system can save almost 4,000 gallons of water a month used for landscape purposes during the irrigation season (May through October). Watering your plants with perfectly good drinking water that has gone through a costly purification process seems crazy when graywater is an optional source—almost as absurd as flushing your waste with the same purified drinking water.

More elaborate laundry-to-landscape irrigation systems like the one that keeps Smith's agapanthus satiated have a materials cost of around $400–$500. Golden Love of Love's Gardens is the mastermind behind Smith's irrigation system. The garden is set around a bocce ball court, with an expanse of black piping running its length beneath the mulch, and with 28 release valves that can be opened or closed to release the water.

The most elaborate systems, incorporating bathroom sinks and showers into the graywater flow, require a permit and an approved backflow valve to prevent graywater from flowing back into the sink or shower whence it came.

A Case-by-Case Solution

Laundry-to-landscape systems are a great start to graywater reuse, but they're not the end-all solution to water scarcity in Santa Cruz.

Toby Goddard, the city's water conservation manager, encourages citizens to explore the options that the state's liberalized use of graywater may present in their own yards but to remember that it is one of many measures a resident can take to conserve water. Reducing yard size, using low-volume sprinkler nozzles and weather-based irrigation systems and planting more shade trees are other methods Goddard lists to cut down on landscape water usage. After all, as Sherry Bryan of Ecology Action says, the point is to reduce along with reusing and recycling.

"Just like you would reduce your overall energy consumption before installing solar panels," she says, "you should reduce your overall water consumption before pumping all your graywater into your landscape."


NEW LINE ON LAUNDRY: Clotheslines are cool. Literally.

To Green a Scene

Random thoughts on greening up the domicile

By Cat Johnson

Bundle Plastic Bags for Recycling Sad truth: wadding up single-use plastic bags and throwing them into the recycling does little good for Mama Terra; they tend to get stuck in machinery, so workers pull them out. Instead, plastic bags should all be gathered together in—what else?—a plastic bag and then put in the recycling.

Eco-Friendly Dry Cleaning States are slowly passing legislation to phase out the use of perchloroethylene, or perc, a common dry-cleaning chemical that has been linked to multiple health problems. This being Santa Cruz, we're ahead of the game, already having several local cleaners who use eco-friendly, wet cleaning alternatives.

Energy Efficient Appliances The clunker appliances from the olden days are old news. Newer, energy-efficient appliances are the way to go now. On April 22, California fires up its Energy Efficient Appliance Rebate program, a variation on the automotive Cash for Clunkers program, with $50 rebates for replacing old window air conditioning units, $100 for outdated washing machines and $200 for retro refrigerators.

Energy Efficient Window Dressing Keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter with energy-efficient shades, drapes and blinds. Available in a variety of styles, the name of the game is to keep the home a comfortable temperature in the most efficient, affordable way.

Garden Indoors Indoor gardening has gone vertical. Woolly Pockets, made from recycled plastic bottles and looking quite a bit like their namesake, provide the perfect environment for plants to thrive in, whether on a table, the floor or the walls. Available at Dig in Santa Cruz.

Giving New Life to Old Down When the comforter has lost its fluff and the pillow its lift, don't despair; Downworks can help. The local down experts can add down to your pre-cleaned items, restoring them to their full and fluffy best.

Hang It Out To Dry Save money while stirring up memories of warm summer days at Grandma's house with a clothesline. No energy-saving dryer can compete with the sun and the breeze. Retractable clotheslines and drying racks are available at home improvement stores all around the county.

Mason Jar Mania Almost anything that needs to be stored in the fridge or on a shelf can go into a mason jar, and without releasing BPA or any other nasty chemicals into the food instead. Sturdy and washable, with easily replaceable lids, they can last for years and be dropped into the recycling afterward with a clean conscience.

Natural and NonToxic Rugs You don't even want to know how many chemicals are used to treat carpets and rugs. It's measured in pounds per square foot. But the alternatives are many and include everything from wool and hemp carpeting to woven grasses and organic cotton rugs.

Natural Bedding Looking for a better night's sleep? Think some chemical-free, allergy-free and organic sheets, pillowcases and comforters might help? Eco Goods, Greenspace and SC41 all carry bedding to send you off to dreamland in eco-style.

NonToxic Paints Yes, nontoxic house paint exists. And it's not that hard to come by, as most manufacturers now offer zero or low Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) paints and finishes.

NonToxic Pest Spray Created by Carmel Valley resident Tor McPartland, Orange Guard is a safe-as-mother's-milk way to keep ants and roaches at bay. The active ingredient works by dissolving insect exoskeletons, but it's derived from orange peels, so accidentally spraying some on the cutting board is no big deal. Available at Orchard Supply Hardware and numerous other local stores.

Remove Yourself From Junk Mail Lists Oh, what a drag to receive full-color, glossy catalogs that go immediately to the recycling bin. Luckily, there's help. Check out to slow the junk mail flow.

Salvage Materials Need a bathtub? How about a door? Capitola Freight & Salvage sells everything from windows and door knobs to drawer handles, door frames and the kitchen sink. Plus a whole lot of stuff you never knew you needed, all salvaged and reusable.

Sustainably Harvested Furniture The bad news is that furniture-grade wood is often harvested from rainforests. The good news is that there are alternatives. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies timber that has been cut in an environmentally and socially responsible manner and their seal can be found on furniture from hundreds of manufacturers.

Unplug The Gadgets It's shocking to find out how much energy trickles out of electric sockets and into gadgets we aren't using. An easy way to stop the trickle is to unplug chargers, gadgets and games that are not in use. If they're plugged in, they're trickling.

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