Looks like not all plumbers are simply average Joes (sorry, couldn’t help myself). You don’t need to be a licensed pipe technician to learn how to save thousands of gallons of water a year and hundreds of dollars in the process. According to an article by Matthew Green of the East Bay Express, a league of “plumbing activists” are putting their technical skills to work combating California state codes that inhibit the widespread use of water-saving greywater systems.

Greywater, also known as sullage, is non-industrial wastewater generated from domestic processes such as dish washing, laundry and bathing. Greywater comprises 50 to 80 percent of residential wastewater and is generated from all of the house’s sanitation equipment except for the toilets (water from toilets being blackwater). In recent years, concerns over dwindling reserves of groundwater and overloaded or costly sewage treatment plants has generated much interest in the reuse or recycling of greywater, both domestically and for use in commercial irrigation.

The Uniform Plumbing Code, adopted in some United States jurisdictions, prohibits greywater use indoors. The California policy, its shortcomings and the current controversy as described in the Express:

Drawn up in 1995 by California’s departments of health and water resources, it was the first state-level greywater guidelines, inspiring a number of other states throughout the country to follow suit. Yet many advocates of greywater have long asserted that the code is outdated and unnecessarily restrictive, making it far too expensive and complicated for most homeowners to install their own systems, and ultimately resulting in millions of wasted gallons each year.

“California has such a bad code and makes it so restrictive that basically no one follows it,” said Laura Allen, 32, an elementary school teacher who devotes much of her free time to spreading the greywater gospel. “We talk of water scarcity when we actually have a lot of water that we’re just dumping in the bay.”

Allen is a co-founder of Greywater Guerrillas, a group devoted to distributing the plans and information that residents and experts need to install effective, low-cost, safe but mostly very low-tech greywater solutions that will help them conserve and re-use water around their homes. The group’s Web site offers instructions for building systems that require only a few hundred dollars’ investment and minimal time compared to the thousands of dollars and months of permitting work required for code-compliant systems.

Concerns over potential health and environmental risks means that many jurisdictions demand such intensive treatment systems for legal reuse of greywater that the commercial cost is higher than for fresh water. However, with water conservation now becoming a necessity, business, political and community pressure has made regulators seriously reconsider the actual risks against actual benefits. It is now recognized and accepted by an increasing number of regulators that the microbiological risks of greywater reuse at the single dwelling level are in reality an insignificant risk, when properly managed without the need for complex and expensive red tape approval processes. If collected using a separate plumbing system to blackwater, domestic greywater can be recycled directly within the home, garden or agricultural company and used either immediately or processed and stored.

Because greywater use, especially domestically, reduces demand on conventional water supplies and pressure on sewage treatment systems, its use is very beneficial. In times of drought, especially in urban areas, greywater use on gardens or in toilet systems helps to achieve more sustainable development.

According to the article, quite a few professionals and policy makers in the state are critical of the code. And although those who earn their living as plumbers may be reluctant to risk breaking state rules, it seems that few officials are truly interested in cracking down on H2O conservationists. But changing laws is a slow and frustrating process, and none of the relevant departments seems willing to shoulder the responsibility of changing the status quo.

Oakland resident and licensed plumber Christina Bertea offers some input on the situation:

“I understand the mindset of formal training about following the code, but in this case it is more important to be reusing the water.” With reasonable standards, she added, local utility districts could educate their clients on how to safely recycle greywater. “This precious thing, clean potable water at our tap, that much of the world wished they had, we use it once and dump it. We need to rethink our whole relationship to water.”

It takes courage to challenge the system, particularly when doing so could threaten your professional license, but it’s important to do so. Throughout history, groups of concerned and passionate citizens like the Greywater Guerrillas have often provided slow-moving governments with the momentum necessary to create real change.

Ben Eckold is a business senior, the president of the Empower Poly Coalition and a Mustang Daily columnist.

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