Greywater rain systems save water, alleviate sprinkler guilt

By Janine Zacharia | Jan. 22, 2022

With roughly half of California’s urban water use going outdoors, mostly for irrigation, I’ve been searching for the perfect barrel to alleviate my sprinkler guilt. So, amid forecasts of another dryer-than-average winter, I was thrilled when San Mateo County advertised free rain barrels for residents last fall.

“I want this,” I wrote to my husband. But by the time I tried to register, all 330 barrels were gone, and there was a waitlist of 200.

I next contacted Oakland-based WaterSprout for help with a barrel. But they said because of “extremely high interest” they were only taking on new home construction or major remodel projects. Another indicator I wasn’t the only Californian wanting to conserve water.

Finally, I found Joseah Rosales of Greywater Landscape Design who persuaded me within minutes that my barrel’s savings would be a drop in the bucket compared to what I could do with a greywater system.

Suddenly, we could save thousands of gallons compared to just 50 or 500 with a barrel. As my husband wisely noted: It doesn’t rain often here, but it rains every day in our house.

After ballparking our annual number of showers, baths and loads of laundry as a family of four, Rosales calculated that by installing laundry-to-landscape and shower-to-landscape systems, we could irrigate most of our backyard plants with reused water.

It took less than two days to install the low-tech system of pipes and mulch basins. When I showed it to two of my neighbors, they immediately scheduled consultations too.

Given the prospect of longer and more frequent droughts — researchers predicted that California could soon see five-year stints of no snow at all — it is shocking how little California does to promote meaningful, urban water reuse, relying instead on fines to encourage cutbacks that won’t be widely enforced.

Like PG&E’s gripes about residential solar power, water utilities aren’t incentivized to help homeowners use less water. “Going partially off the grid … is not as attractive to them because it can impact their sales and ultimately their financial health,” Newsha Ajami, a Stanford water expert, told me. This needs to be fixed with subsidies or some other state action.

We were fortunate to have the cash upfront — $1,800 for laundry-to-landscape and $5,800 for the shower system — an investment we’ll eventually recoup in savings on our water bill. But while there’s financing for solar, nothing similar exists for greywater systems, putting these attractive conservation mechanisms out of reach for many.

If the state wants to show it is taking the drought seriously, it should provide more funds to expand rebates. Santa Clara County offers a $400 rebate for a greywater system. San Francisco offers $225. Contra Costa County offers up to $50. The East Bay Municipal District also offers up to $50. San Mateo County, where we live, offers none.

Since Valley Water’s Graywater Rebate Program began in 2014, only 66 have been issued for residential laundry-to-landscape systems in a service area of nearly 2 million people. When Valley Water piloted a direct-install program in 2019-2020, they put in 71.

“Greywater is definitely an underutilized resource even in very conservation- or sustainability-minded communities,” Justin Burks, senior water conservation specialist at the Santa Clara Valley Water District, said.

Greywater mandates would be most effective in scaling all this up, the way developers are now limited in how much grass can be put in new construction in California, or an earlier drought that led to rules on ultra-low-flush toilets. For starters, Sacramento should at least follow San Francisco and require all new construction over 100,000 square feet to include a greywater system and provide more subsidies for home installations.

Some won’t be able to install greywater because of cost, inaccessible pipes or a shortage of contractors. But our Redwood City retrofit, while pricey, was easy and empowering. It allowed me to channel my climate change anxiety into action and removed all guilt about watering my plants.

Despite all I’ve learned about greywater’s superior savings, I still plan on getting a 530-gallon barrel. I want to save every drop.