Austin seeks to rewrite gray water rules as conservation measure

Rebecca Batchelder is a former Glenrose Engineering staff engineer. Her property in the City of Austin became the site of one of our graywater pilot projects, and an article subject in the Austin American Statesman.

Austin seeks to rewrite gray water rules as conservation measure
By Asher Price

Updated: 12:05 a.m. Monday, July 2, 2012
Published: 9:14 p.m. Sunday, July 1, 2012

In 2010, Rebecca Batchelder became the first person in Austin to win a permit for a gray water system, which diverts some household wastewater from showers and bathtubs, bathroom sinks and washing machines for yard watering, among other things.

She’s still the only one.

Critics say the myriad, stringent requirements for obtaining permits have deterred others from installing such systems, which can significantly reduce water use and could become a key piece of the city’s water conservation efforts.

Now a city-organized task force is proposing new rules that would make it easier — if only slightly — for homeowners to add a gray water system.

“We’re losing huge amounts of water down drains that could conceivably be used for other purposes,” Council Member Chris Riley said. “If you could just capture it, it’s the equivalent of drilling a well. You’re tapping a currently unused resource.”

An average household can divert at least 40 gallons per day, or 15 percent of daily usage, by using a gray water system, according to the City of Austin.

Nine Texas cities, including Dallas, San Antonio and Corpus Christi, allow or are on the verge of allowing gray water systems, according to research by Riley’s office.

But officially permitted gray water systems are rare, partly because of cost and partly because of thorny codes that make compliance tricky.

The City of San Marcos, for instance, passed its own gray water ordinance in 2010. No one has applied for a permit, said Jon Clack, an assistant director for public services.

That same year, with free time because of a downturn in the economy, Batchelder and her colleagues at Glenrose Engineering, an environmental engineering and consulting firm, decided they would try to build a gray water system for her 1940 home as a pilot project. Since 2004, state law has allowed gray water to be used for composting, gardening and watering around a home’s foundation to prevent cracks.

Batchelder’s system, which hooked up a shower, bathroom sink and laundry machine to a stock tank, cost $500 in materials. Batchelder, who recently moved to Los Angeles, used the water from the tank, which was 6 feet in diameter and 2 feet deep, to water herbs, vegetables and native plants in her yard.

As helpful as some city staff members were, she said, trying to meet code was a hassle.

To distribute water from the tank, for example, the city required that she bury perforated PVC pipes and cover them with gravel, she said. She had to build a small fence around the tank because authorities required it as a safety measure for children. In January, the City Council ordered a task force of city departments to meet with a handful of residents, each involved in sustainability projects, to identify impediments to installing residential gray water systems and to make recommendations about how to alleviate them. The city directed the group to make suggestions ranging from code amendments to incentives or rebates.

They have reached some agreements, chief among them that when the newest plumbing code is adopted, it will solve “many of the unnecessary, stupid, and counter-productive gray water system design requirements in the current City code,” according to task force member Lauren Ross, an environmental engineer.

But key city departments, such as Austin Water Utility, appear uneasy with much more loosening of the rules.

“We want to facilitate water conservation without jeopardizing the public water system,” said Jason Hill, a spokesman for Austin Water Utility.

The utility wants to maintain extra measures to separate gray water from drinking water, among other safeguards.

Some of those devices require annual inspections and add hundreds of dollars to the system’s cost, according to the utility’s water conservation division manager, Drema Gross.

The group’s recommendations, expected Friday, might suggest that the city sell some kind of kit, similar to one offered in San Francisco, that allows residents to direct laundry wash water to lawns, said Kirby Fry, owner of Southern Exposure, a sustainable design company, and a member of the group. He said gray, or soapy, water from a load of laundry could water five or six trees.

But the city may still require one of the pricey devices, even with the kit, Fry said. Environmental contamination is another worry, city officials say.

“The city doesn’t have a realistic view of health risks versus the benefits of the system,” said green builder Nicholas Blaise Koch, who has been trying to shepherd a client’s gray water proposal through the city for more than a year.

He said comprehensive gray water systems can start at several thousand dollars.

Ross, a colleague of Batchelder’s who worked on her project, calculates that if she were diverting 100 percent of her home’s gray water she would save $125 a year.

“People who do this aren’t interested in saving money,” Ross said. “They’re interested in gray water systems more broadly because it makes sense to reuse relatively clean water to water our gardens when our lake levels are dropping a foot a week in the middle of the drought.”

Some residents, such as Ross, have rudimentary, unofficial gray water systems, which often involve collecting shower water in buckets or sucking up shower water with wet vacuums.

Blaise Koch’s client, C. Michael Donoghue, a civil engineer who wants to make his Travis Heights home as efficient as possible, is determined to slog through the city process to make his the second permitted system — even though several people inside and outside the city have counseled him not to bother, he said.

“A very important part of this is education, to do it the correct way, rationally, open and up front, so it’s replicable,” Donoghue said. “The idea is not to do it and hide. The purpose is to do this in the broad daylight and show that we’re not going to bring a plague upon the city. Water is a serious matter, one we take for granted. We need to think the whole problem through, and there are ways through it.”

Contact Asher Price at 512-445-3643

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