'Greywater' helps East Bay residents cope with parched landscape
By Lou Fancher
While almost everyone in California is talking about the drought, East Bay residents are doing something about it.
Sustainable Contra Costa co-founder and President Tina Neuhausel is using her Walnut Creek home as a proving ground for energy- and water-conservation. Clayton homeowner Linda Cruz recently installed a greywater system. And Oakland-based Greywater Action is leading workshops, presentations and community forums on sustainable water-use practices throughout Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
Greywater systems capture household water from sinks, washing machines, showers and baths and redirect the resource to irrigate ornamental plants and fruit trees instead of discharging it into storm sewers. Using simple plumbing materials, water that contains no toxic substances (like bleach, sodium, boron or shampoos) can also supply essential nutrients to vegetables, as long as it doesn't touch edible parts of the plants.
Laura Allen, Greywater Action co-founder, noted, "Water conservation and reusing greywater is critical this dry year: we must all find ways to use less water in our homes and communities so that we can live in balance with our water supply and restore and protect our natural water ecosystems."
Now living in Southern California, but still active in the East Bay organization, Allen has conducted a study of 83 residential greywater systems in the greater Bay Area and is finishing a book about drought-proofing landscapes, with expected publication by Storey Publishing in January.
For the simplest laundry-to-landscape systems, materials are about $200. Depending on how much digging a homeowner is willing to do to prepare mulch basins and trenches for burying pipes, labor for installation of low-tech systems is less than $500.
Or, it's entirely free, as it was for Cruz. The 34-year resident agreed to have her home be the site of a Sustainable Contra Costa workshop operated by GWA, after another home presented cement deck problems.
"I was signed up for the workshop, and they asked if we'd do it," Cruz recalls.
"My husband ... was impressed that there were people who really want to learn. We had people from Sacramento, Half Moon Bay, Salinas -- all over Northern California."
Cruz says she recycled household water during droughts in the '70s and '80s, but back then it was through a hose her husband hooked up to to the washing machine.
Every spin cycle, she'd dash out and water the lawn.
Now, with arthritis limiting her sprinting days, she's loving the greywater system's three-way valve (allowing her to direct water into sewer channels, or not) and has a small, immersible sump pump to push water from baths to the landscape.
She and her husband are exploring solar panels, but Cruz shares a cautionary note: "One guy tried to sell us more panels than would fit on our roof, so you have to do your research."
Neuhausel, whose grass-roots organization runs programs aimed at educating people and providing tools for taking healthy, sustainable actions, says adding a greywater system builds community.
"We get in touch with each other. Neighbors pay attention," she says. "The alarming messages about drought don't work.
"Helping people to do things better in ways that makes sense for them -- that's our purpose."
Neuhausel says her husband doesn't want to hear about how they'll save the world; he wants to know how to do things that work for his home.
"People don't know where to start," she says. "They don't know how they can save water, conserve energy, grow food and volunteer. They need ideas that fit their budget and lifestyle."
On the Sustainable Contra Costa website, "action guides" give fast, easy ideas for conservation.
Initiatives related to urban farming, speaker events and the annual Leadership in Sustainability and Green Building Awards Gala (this year's nominations are due July 31) expand the group's impact beyond individual neighborhood backyards.
Neuhausel says the rainwater and two greywater systems Sustainable Contra Costa installed this year prove the need for "people power."
The workshops -- four-hour training and installation sessions that include a full lunch and unlimited camaraderie -- are popular.
"I'd love to install these everywhere," Neuhausel says. "The problem is, we need plumbers and contractors to participate."
Neuhausel's home has five fruit trees, all watered by her laundry's greywater system. A rainwater system captures 300 gallons of runoff from the roof in wine barrels she purchased from Bill's Ace Hardware in Martinez for $79 apiece.
Sheet mulching -- free cardboard flats from Costco, topped with a neighbor's excess wood chips -- reduces her landscape maintenance costs.
Other upgrades bear a heftier price tag: tankless, coiled hot water heater ($2,400 to install), solar panels ($13,000, minus $8,000 federal tax credit) and whole-house installation ($18,000, minus $8,000 in state and county rebates).
"Energy upgrades are a long-term investment," Neuhausel admits, "but a greywater system is something all kinds of people can do. The best part is doing it with neighbors. They help your lawn; you help theirs."
That -- and the slip of paper PG&E recently sent, showing that energy credit from the solar panels is likely to mean her family of four will soon pay nothing for electricity -- are all the incentive Neuhausel needs to continue the less-talk-all-action, East Bay charge.