Can We Make L.A. Graywater Ready?

The City of Los Angeles has crossed the Rubicon by implementing unprecedented city-wide water reduction goals. L.A.’s compelling decision comes in response to the devastating drought affecting the entire state of California, projections for another dry winter, and the concern that, with climate change, we could be experiencing a “new normal.” 

The implications of the drought – fierce wildfires, water shortages and restrictions, and potentially staggering agricultural losses – on the 38 million people who call California their home are daunting, especially to those living in the arid southern region.  Currently, the City of Los Angeles consumes an alarming 685 million cubic meters per year of potable water.  That’s enough water to fill 274,178 Olympic-size pools! Roughly 68% of that is used in our homes and yards

The Mayor has therefore called on various departments within the city to take action, from reducing irrigation at city owned facilities to developing plans to convert street medians to no and low water use landscaping.  The Mayor has also requested that LADWP report on the potential to establish additional cost-effective commercial, industrial and residential rebate and/or educational programs for reducing water, such as graywater systems. This is an important step for Los Angeles; increasing the use of residential graywater -- the water from our washing machines and bathroom faucets, showers, and baths -- for non-potable demands like flushing toilets or landscape irrigation will result in dramatic water savings throughout the City.  According to a recent study, on-site graywater recycling can reduce potable water demand by 27% and 38% in single-family and multi-family homes, respectively. And if just 10% of the city’s residents participate in graywater recycling, L.A. will be able to reduce:

  • water supply and treatment-related energy by 43,000 MWh per year
  • potable water demand by 2%
  •  wastewater treatment load by 3%

And Los Angeles shouldn’t stop with graywater in homes. Up north, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) recently launched an ambitious Non-Potable Water Program that creates a streamlined process for new commercial, multi-family, and mixed-use developments that wish to collect, treat and reuse alternative water sources for toilet flushing, irrigation, and other non-potable demands.

So, what’s standing in our way? Historically, the biggest barriers to more widespread use of graywater systems in Los Angeles (and elsewhere in California) has been:

  • public awareness about how graywater can be used in our homes and yards to reduce water consumption
  • the confusing, time-consuming, and costly permitting process
  • the expense of the graywater systems themselves

However, many cities like San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Santa Rosa, are overcoming these barriers by implementing more proactive and innovative policies.  The SFPUC developed a Graywater Design Manual to promote safe and effective graywater use, as well as providing important rebates and incentives.  And the City of Santa Clara provides rebates that combine incentives for graywater use with other outdoor conservation measures to encourage customers to create truly efficient landscapes that are appropriate for the needs of their household.

Here are five recommendations for increasing graywater use in the City of Los Angeles.  These suggestions will help lower the cost to Angelenos and encourage adoption of graywater recycling systems.

1)      Home graywater education: Create a user-friendly website to help educate the public on graywater (and other water saving tips), provide information about the permitting process, and host workshops on water efficient technologies. The internet is an important resource for proliferation of information and a user-friendly website on the city’s sustainability efforts would help popularize graywater and water efficient technologies through community engagement, social media, community workshops, and partnerships with local environmental groups.  The City of Sydney, Australia hosts a great website that is both attractive and informative: www.greenvillages.com.au.

2)      Streamlined permitting and permit rebates. San Francisco offers a streamlined program for graywater projects that require permits.  The SFPUC program includes helpful tools like a non-potable water calculator and a step-by-step guidebook for the permitting process. Additionally, the SFPUC offers a rebate up to $225 toward the costs of the Department of Building inspection permit.  Adjustments to the permitting process should also include education for permitting authorities to ensure consistent messaging to the public about permit requirements.

3)      Rebate program for graywater systems. Decreasing the high upfront costs of retrofitting and system capital costs would decrease the greatest barrier to graywater sytems for property owners.  There are multiple ways for implementing a rebate program for graywater systems.  The City of Santa Clara, mentioned previously, is one example of a good program.  Santa Clara homeowners may qualify for both the Graywater Laundry to Landscape rebate program (up to $200) and the Landscape rebate program ($2.00 per square foot) for converting high water using landscape into a landscape more suitable for graywater systems (i.e., planting fruit trees). An alternative program is a direct install pilot program.  Long Beach experimented with a similar program, where 35 homes were selected through a lottery system to have laundry to landscape systems installed in their homes.

4)      Modify the building code to require new homes to be “graywater-ready”.  “Graywater-ready” homes include dual plumbing to collect graywater separately from blackwater in new single-family homes. Currently, the City of Tucson, AZ requires residential construction to provide plumbing for facilitating onsite graywater use and other cities in California are considering similar requirements. 

5)      Adopt a Non-Potable Water Program for new commercial buildings in Los Angeles. For example, SFPUC offers a streamline permitting process for graywater systems for new commercial, multi-family, and mixed use developments, and other non-potable uses. 

The key is that all the pieces need to be in place to ensure a successful graywater program.  The rebates and incentives are no good if no one is looking for them or the permitting process is too confusing. 

What can we do at home to help LA reach this new water use goal?  Considering that about 45% of the city lives in single family homes and nearly 70% of all water use occurs outdoors – one of the easiest things homeowners can do is to install a laundry to landscape graywater system, i.e., using the wastewater from our clothes washer to irrigate your landscape.  In California, you no longer need a permit for this type of system as long as you meet basic requirements  – so consider diverting this water now!  Click here to learn more about how to install a laundry to landscape system.

Want to know even more about graywater in Los Angeles? Check out this story on KPCC.

About the Authors

Tracy Quinn

Policy Analyst, Water program

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