I just returned from a five-day canoe trip. I had some camp clothes, and others waiting in the hamper, that needed laundered, so I ran a couple loads of wash. Due to last winter’s low rainfall, we are now under drought restrictions for water usage and the water district wants to cut back usage 20%. Although I’ve experimented with this before, because of the new drought guidelines I stuck a five-gallon bucket in the laundry tub and ran the washer outlet into the bucket. While this isn’t efficient, it did give me the last five gallons of rinse water from each load. I used this grey water to irrigate the sad looking plants in my front yard. (Although I planted drought tolerant plants two years ago when I re-landscaped my front yard, the low winter rainfall is clearly having an effect. These guys will need some water to keep them going, and it’s not even July yet.)

My water usage is already low. Truth is, my usage is already below 100 gallons per day (although that seems like a lot to me) and that exempts me from the new pricing and surcharge schedules. So, I don’t “have to” conserve. For me, it’s more of a game. It’s easy for those folks with swimming pools and big lawns to save 20%, but for those of us who have been conserving and consuming at low levels already, it presents a much more difficult challenge. Drought tolerant landscaping? Check. Low-flow or modified toilets? Check. Low-flow showerheads? Check. So, one way to conserve is to save the water from the shower and the kitchen sink that runs while I’m waiting for hot water. Another way is to use grey water.

Grey water usage is not new and it is something that urban farmers need to get familiar with in many areas. This is not just a drought issue, but a major issue for the future. Access to water is one of a farmer’s critical factors in successful farming. In urban areas, this is compounded by the high costs of water compared to rural areas. Around the world, access to water is already causing international conflict. So, efficient use of water is a critical issue.

Unfortunately, as a matter of public policy, local governments in the United States have not adequately addressed this issue. Specifically, what is needed are building codes that establish workable standards for constructing integrated grey water systems in new construction and in retrofits. Right now, I know of only two legal grey water systems in my area, one in Berkeley, one in Oakland. These were special cases where individuals (Oakland) and a group (Berkeley) were willing to undergo the time and expense of getting permits to build the grey water systems. But, if this is to become a common feature, local governments will need to recognize that most homeowners will not build ad hoc illegal systems. If they really want to encourage people to be efficient with water use, building codes must be changed. Perhaps the growing interest in and need for urban agriculture will prompt local governments to do this.

For now, I will have to simply hope that my local city government will make this process easier, so that I could put in a truly integrated grey water system. Most of my water usage is probably from my daily shower or from doing dishes. All of that water could be used–and would be more than adequate for–watering my garden. At present, however, I have no easy way to save this water for more efficient use.