On the heels of the wettest weather in years, Santa Barbara County has begun easing restrictions on residential graywater systems, sending the message that long-term conservation is a way of life in Southern California.
Starting now, 57,000 residents living in the unincorporated Goleta Valley can legally pipe graywater from their bathroom sinks, showers, and tubs onto their landscaping without having to apply for a building permit, get an inspection or pay fees, said Massoud Abolhoda, county building and safety manager.
“They still have to comply with all the requirements written into the plumbing code,” he cautioned. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Bathroom graywater systems, dubbed “shower-to-flowers,” can reduce the potable water use for a single-family home by as much as 20 percent, on top of a 20 percent reduction from laundry-to-landscape, said Larry Fay, director of county Environmental Health Services. The county’s permit fee for a typical shower-to-flowers system would be about $300 if anyone applied, officials said, but no one has in recent memory.
“A lot of people do them – they just don’t get permits,” Fay said. “These are very low-risk systems if you do them in accordance with the standards. You might be doubling the amount of graywater you’d be able to use. Come spring, it won’t be raining anymore, right? Wise use of what resources we have just makes sense.”
Graywater educators hailed the county’s new leniency, saying that waiving shower-to-flowers permits in portions of the Goleta Valley could have a multiplier effect around the state.
“This is very significant,” said Art Ludwig, the Santa Barbara author of “Create An Oasis With Greywater,” a 1991 guide now in its 6th edition, and the “Builder’s Greywater Guide,” a technical manual. “It will enable landscapers, plumbers and handy people to install systems professionally. It kind of shifts everything.”
The Goleta Water District board triggered the exemption for its customers in unincorporated areas when it sent a letter to the county last month, stating that it was not opposed to waiving permits for shower-to-flowers systems.
Municipalities, including the City of Goleta, population 30,500, must decide separately whether to proceed. In Santa Barbara, city officials said they were working with Ludwig and looking at ways to exempt shower-to-flowers systems from permit fees while still retaining some oversight.
Ludwig and Laura Allen, a co-founder of Greywater Action, a nonprofit group that has trained thousands of homeowners in Los Angeles and the Bay Area to design and build graywater systems, said they knew of no other jurisdiction in California that has waived shower-to-flowers permits, though San Francisco is preparing to do so.
“Santa Barbara County has made the most advances in inter-agency collaboration to make it easier for residents to use graywater legally,” said Allen, the author of “The Water-Wise Home,” now in its second printing. One household can save 15,000 gallons of drinking water per year, on average, by installing laundry-to-landscape and shower-to-flowers systems, Allen said.
In 2009, the California plumbing code was revised to eliminate permits statewide for laundry-to-landscape graywater systems, and Ludwig says he drafted the change. Thousands of such systems are in use today, funded in part with rebates from local water agencies, Ludwig said, adding, “The quality of the systems just skyrocketed.”
The 2009 revisions also allowed cities and counties individually to waive permits for shower-to-flowers systems, but the idea has been slow to catch on at the regulatory level. In unincorporated areas, counties are required first to get the permission of local water providers.
The permit exemption for unincorporated Goleta applies to homes with no more than five bedrooms that discharge no more than 250 gallons of graywater per day from bathroom sinks, showers, and tubs onto outdoor plants and trees. The exemption does not apply to “blackwater,” that is, wastewater from toilets, dishwashers, or kitchen sinks.