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Oct 09th
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Greywater to Green Thumbs

news1Santa Cruz embraces the potential of reusing water
Where does the water go after you wash your hands, take a shower or do a load of laundry? Until recently, it all went to sewer lines that funneled to water treatment plants. But California has amended its greywater regulation with the adoption of Title 24, Part five, Chapter 16A for California Plumbing code in January, making it easier to reuse water for gardens and landscaping.

Greywater consists of all wastewater other than food and toilet waste (which is called “black water”) and, with a few adjustments, it can be used to water and irrigate residential properties, thereby reducing water usage and easing the strain on water treatment plants.


Here in Santa Cruz, Gateway Elementary School on West Cliff Drive, in accordance with their mission statement to “prepare students to become responsible, contributing members of the world community,” already has plans to create a simple greywater system to water the garden that is central to their Life Lab class.

The Life Lab Science Program is an educational nonprofit run in conjunction with UC Santa Cruz that works with students from kindergarten to eighth grade on science and garden-based learning. Sixth grader Jonah Tobin has learned what it takes to get food from the farm to the plate in Life Lab. “It’s all about growing stuff eco-friendly,” he says. “We grow everything to make pizza at the end of Life Lab. We grow the wheat for the flour, the … pesto ingredients like basil, and all of the ingredients for the tomato sauce.” He adds, “We couldn’t grow the cheese, though.”

With the help of local environmental nonprofit Ecology Action, Gateway School has already installed a rainwater catchment system that is able to store 4,500 gallons of rainwater. Now they are ready to take the next step in conserving water while teaching students what it takes to get water to gardens.

Life Lab teacher Caprice Potter will use greywater as another tool to inform students about the process of getting water from the faucet to the garden. “It’s such a concrete example of learning where our water comes from,” she says. “It makes it tangible for the kids. The thing that is the most exciting for me is that you’re keeping your resources on your land, on your school grounds. You’re not letting valuable things, like water in this case, to leave your land.”

The Monterey Bay Area has jumped into greywater head first, embracing the new greywater regulations, and forming the Central Coast Greywater Alliance. The alliance, consisting of contractors and advocates of greywater irrigation, has come together to help California reduce its dependence on precious water resources by rerouting laundry, sink and shower water to residential landscaping.

Sherry Bryan, of Ecology Action, has been at the forefront of amending greywater code and played a central role in the Central Coast Greywater Alliance. “Inviting Ecology Action to be involved allowed the alliance to expand out to encompass water agencies and building departments,” she says. “We saw this opportunity to bring everybody together that had a vested interest [in] figuring out what people’s perspectives on greywater were and what the fears were, what the concerns were, what the opportunities were.” Resulting from these discussions, one unified body of comment on greywater code was sent to the state, streamlining the acceptance process.

Now that the ball is rolling, installing greywater irrigation is easier than it’s ever been. There are two different types of simple greywater systems: laundry to landscape and the branched drain system.

Laundry to landscape requires no permit because sewer lines do not have to be altered. It’s a fairly basic system that channels the water from the washing machine to landscaping. Even though the nature of the system does not require the residence to file for a construction permit, regulations and codes are still in place to ensure health issues won’t be a problem. “There is permit exemption for laundry to landscape systems with the option of voluntary notification, which means that public agencies can adopt notification at a later point,” says Bryan. “If it starts to be a problem and people are not doing code compliance systems, then environmental health would want to regulate. Until then, we’re trying to keep costs down for people who want to install greywater irrigation.”

Branched drain greywater systems incorporate bathroom sinks and showers into irrigation. These systems require a construction permit since the sewer line has to be altered, but requirements change depending on the county. Here in Santa Cruz County, the first step to get the building permit is to go to the county building to get an environmental health clearance. There is also a list of general and landscaping contractors on Ecology Action’s website,, that have experience and knowledge installing branched drain systems.

Restrictions for all greywater systems are primarily concerned with pooling and runoff. The objective is for the water to be absorbed by the ground rather than leaving the property and being integrated with ground water, streams, lakes, rivers or drainage systems. According to the amended greywater code 16A: “greywater shall not be used in spray irrigation, allowed to pond or runoff and shall not be discharged directly into or reach any storm sewer system or any surface body of water.“

Since the rainy season in Santa Cruz produces plenty of water for landscaping during the winter months, all greywater systems are also required to have a three-way valve that allows residents to shut off their systems when it’s not necessary to irrigate. This allows residents to avoid any pooling or runoff. According to code, all outlets for greywater must be dispersed at a minimum of two inches under the ground into a mulch basin, one and a half feet from the property line and two feet from any building.

Bryan and other advocates warn that there are some minor lifestyle changes that should be considered when installing greywater irrigation, such as choosing soap that is pH balanced and salt free. “A lot of biodegradable or natural laundry soaps will have a very high salt content so you should avoid any soaps which the first three ingredients say sodium anything,” says Bryan. Costco, New Leaf and the Food Bin all have laundry soap that work well with greywater irrigation and while also doing a good job of cleaning clothes.

There are certain plants that are more receptive to being irrigated with greywater. Some should never be watered with greywater, since it should never touch the edibles portion of a crop. These include carrots, potatoes, radishes, beets and any root vegetable. Caution is also suggested with strawberries, squash and melons, as they should not be touching the ground. Larger plants are best for greywater irrigation because they have a large root area and can handle irregular irrigation more easily if laundry doesn’t get done for a couple of days. Fruit trees, evergreens, ornamental trees, brambles, vines, bamboo, artichokes, asparagus, tomatoes, climbing beans and corn do well.

There is now a rebate program for the residents of Capitola through La Selva, or anyone that pays the Soquel Creek Water District. This is the only company currently offering a rebate in Santa Cruz County and, as of July 1, they are willing to give $75 in rebates for each greywater system. There is a potential of getting a rebate of up to $225 if you irrigate with your washing machine, shower and bathroom sink. If you live in these areas and are interested, has more information about their program.

California, with support from groups like Ecology Action and the local greywater alliance, has made it possible for Gateway School and residences across the county to garden and landscape without draining wells, reservoirs, lakes and rivers. “We paved the way and made a process happen so that people can follow it,” says Bryan. “Now it’s possible for everyone to embrace greywater.”

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