There are some serious greens in Oakland California. Mayor Jerry Brown should be careful because Laura Allen may try to recycle him.
May 31, 2007
The Dirty Water Underground
By GREGORY DICUM
LAURA ALLEN’S modest gray house in the Oakland flatlands would give a building inspector nightmares. Jerry-built pipes protrude at odd angles from the back and sides of the nearly century-old house, running into a cascading series of bathtubs filled with gravel and cattails. White PVC pipe, buckets, milk crates and hoses are strewn about the lot. Inside, there is mysterious — and illegal — plumbing in every room.
Ms. Allen, 30, is one of the Greywater Guerrillas, a team focused on promoting and installing clandestine plumbing systems that recycle gray water — the effluent of sinks, showers and washing machines — to flush toilets or irrigate gardens.
To her, this house is as much an emblem of her belief system as a home. Although gray water use is legal in California, systems that conform to the state’s complicated code tend to be very expensive, and Ms. Allen and her fellow guerrilla, Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, are out to persuade the world that water recycling can be a simple and affordable option, as well as being a morally essential one.
They are part of a larger movement centered in the West — especially in arid regions like Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California — that includes both groups that operate within the law and ones that skirt it. The goal is the reuse of home gray water as a way to live within the region’s ecological means. Using their own experience and contributions from others, they have just published a do-it-yourself guide to gray water systems that is also a manifesto for the movement, “Dam Nation: Dispatches From the Water Underground.”
“A lot of people that care about water try to conserve it,” said Ms. Allen, an elementary-school teacher who installed several gray water systems after buying this home — which she named the “Haut House,” for House of Appropriate Urban Technology — four years ago with a housemate. “But this is about changing the way you interact with it.”
Mr. Woelfle-Erskine, a writer and teacher who lives on a houseboat with a gray water system in San Pablo, Calif., 10 miles north, added, “It’s about trying to use resources to their full potential and interact with ecosystems in a beneficial way.”
In 1994, California became the first state to establish guidelines for gray water use — as most other states have since — and it has become a leader in building industrial-scale gray water systems. The town of Arcata, for example, has an extensive system that serves the entire population of 17,000, and even the state’s oil refineries have gray water systems.
But many gray water advocates say that California’s plumbing code — which stipulates things like pipe sizes, burial depths and soil tests based on rules established for septic systems — is prohibitively complicated for private homeowners interested in recycling gray water, and that its requirements are prohibitively expensive.
“The code is so overbuilt that I’m beginning to think it’s better to just have everyone do it bootleg,” said Steve Bilson, the founder of ReWater Systems, a company that has installed around 800 code-compliant gray water systems at a cost of about $7,000 each, and who worked as a consultant on California gray water legislation in the 1990s.
As a result, many homeowners have installed unpermitted, illegal plumbing, relying on techniques developed by covert researchers like the Greywater Guerrillas. (It is difficult to know how many, since these systems are not registered with any government or organization, but Ms. Allen said that based on her observations there are probably around 2,000 homes equipped with gray water systems, a few legal but most illegal, in the Bay Area alone.)
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Woelfle-Erskine stood in the backyard of the Haut House and explained how one of the half-dozen gray water systems there works. A pipe running from the house deposits shower and sink water into an elevated bathtub in the yard that is filled with gravel and reeds, and the roots of plants begin filtering and absorbing contaminants. The water then flows into a second, lower, tub, also containing a reedbed, before flowing into a still-lower tub of floating water hyacinths and small fish.
“We’ve had the water tested,” Mr. Woelfle-Erskine said, “and it’s clean — there’s just a little phosphorous left, which the plants in the garden actually like.” Through trial and error, Mr. Woelfle-Erskine and Ms. Allen have found what they say is the best way to spread wastewater into the gravel beds (through a screened milk crate) and which plants best clean the water while not growing so vigorously as to block pipes (cattails).
Although this Rube Goldberg setup, known as a constructed wetland, cost only about $100 to build, it represents a pinnacle of gray water system design, which is usually far more modest, according to Art Ludwig, an ecological systems designer in Santa Barbara. (Mr. Ludwig’s Web site, graywater.net, offers a practical introduction for do-it-yourselfers.) The vast majority of systems, Mr. Ludwig said, “cost less than a hundred bucks — it can be just a hose.” For example, a hose connects the sink to the toilet tank to create a gray-water toilet in one of the Haut House bathrooms.
In spite of the ad hoc nature of many illegal systems, Mr. Ludwig said, he has “never heard of a single case of health problems from using gray water, ever.” Similarly, Simon Eching, the chief of program development at California’s Department of Water Resources — the body that drafted the state’s gray water code — said he knew of no health issues arising from gray water use in California.
But Mr. Ludwig’s Web site also points out that there are a number of potential pitfalls. He strongly discourages ponds of exposed water like the one fed by the constructed wetland in Ms. Allen’s backyard, for example, because they can draw mosquitoes that carry disease. He cautions against crossing plumbing lines and contaminating clean water; using gray water in sprinkler systems or on fruits and vegetables that are eaten raw (it should only be used to irrigate roots); and allowing water contaminated by toxic cleansers, soiled diapers or contact with people who have infectious diseases to enter the gray water system.
Not even the Greywater Guerrillas would now condone the first system they built, in 1999. Back then, they were living with six housemates in a rented house in a rundown part of Oakland.
After receiving a water bill showing that the house was using 241 gallons a day despite their conservation efforts (the figure was actually less than half the national average of 70 gallons per person per day), the two headed to the basement with little more than a hacksaw and righteous enthusiasm. “We didn’t have a plan,” Ms. Allen said, “and we didn’t even have the materials. We were dumb, really.”
Their initial efforts dumped used shower water into the basement, forcing their housemates to forgo bathing for days. But before long, they were building a gray water system.
Two years later, as the Guerrilla Greywater Girls (at the time, Cleo Woelfle-Erskine was a woman) they published a “Guide to Water,” a crude sheaf of photocopies held together with a rubber band that combined plumbing instructions and design tips with an argument that water systems like dams and aqueducts were instruments of greed. “Dam Nation” is an expanded and less breathless descendant of the guide, with contributions from movement members as far away as Thailand.
Thousands of copies of the original were circulated while the Greywater Guerrillas honed their skills up and down the West Coast, installing systems from Seattle to Los Angeles for friends and like-minded people, and occasionally for hire, and connecting interested homeowners with plumbers willing to do illegal work. (Ms. Allen even took a plumbing course at a community college; she said that when the instructor began to sense what she was up to, he stopped answering her questions.)
Four years ago, they worked with Babak Tondre, a co-founder of a demonstration home in Berkeley called EcoHouse, to install a gray water system there.
“When the Greywater Guerrillas came over, I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” said Mr. Tondre, 37. He was soon forced to remove the system when the nonprofit Berkeley Ecology Center, which runs the house, objected: “The board flipped when they saw it. It was totally illegal.”
Mr. Tondre then applied for a permit from the city. The resulting system, a more robustly engineered constructed wetland, funnels shower and laundry water underground, through a deep bed of gravel contained within a pond liner, and into a pipe at the other end of the gravel bed. More buried pipes direct water to the roots of plum, pear and cherry trees.
The system — which Mr. Tondre believes is the first and so far only residential constructed wetland in California built with a permit — cost $4,000 using volunteer labor. It can convert a maximum of 27,000 gallons of gray water into irrigation every year, enough for six fruit trees, along with the marsh plants in the wetland itself.
If gray water is starting to gain public acceptance, the Greywater Guerrillas are staying well ahead of the mainstream. At the side of the Haut House, next to a chicken coop, twin plastic barrels hold hundreds of pounds of waste from composting toilets inside the house.
While chickens pecked around her bare feet, Ms. Allen plunged a giant corkscrew into one of the barrels to mix the contents and speed the yearlong composting process. “Smell it,” she said. “Not bad at all.”