Compared to Arizona and New Mexico, Utah’s current graywater code is a regulatory and financial nightmare for the homeowner.
That’s according to Dr. Roslynn Brain, an Assistant Professor of Sustainable Communities at Utah State University – Moab.
In her profession, Brain has researched graywater systems in various states, as well as the laws that govern them. And, as a soon-to-be homeowner who wants to legally install a graywater system, she says she’s frustrated by the administrative hurdles.
“Graywater” refers to the relatively clean water that goes down the drains of showers, sinks and washing machines. This water can be reused for other purposes like landscape irrigation, which prevents the need to use fresh groundwater.
Groundwater loss is a potential threat to future water security in the Colorado River Basin, according to a recent study done by NASA and the University of California, Irvine. The study revealed the basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet of freshwater since 2004, almost double the volume of Lake Mead.
Groundwater is also the subject of a pending study by Utah Division of Water Rights and the U.S. Geological Survey, which is designed to give a more thorough understanding of the aquifer that provides Moab’s culinary water.
Brain outlined the graywater system she would like to use when she builds her straw bale home in Moab’s Mulberry Grove neighborhood.
It includes two graywater systems: one for the shower and one for the washing machine. The washing machine involves a pump connection, which would push water out to the landscape via a wider drip system. For the shower, the pipes would flow into two or three larger basins, where Brain said that she and her partner are thinking about planting pistachio, cherry, and peach trees, among others.
Aside from Brain, local business owners are interested in using graywater, as well.
Kim Sherwood and Cherie Major are the owners of ACT Campground and Learning Center, set to open next spring, with a focus on community and demonstration of eco-friendly design. They want to use graywater on their campground’s landscape because, as they put it, “We want to conserve limited fresh water in the Moab area and the Colorado Basin at large.”
The use of graywater is technically legal in Utah, but designs must be permitted by a local health department that has been authorized by the state to regulate graywater systems in its district. So far, only the Utah County Health Department has received state approval to regulate graywater systems.
Southeast Utah District Health Department (SEUDHD) Environmental Health Scientist Orion Rogers acknowledged that local demand for graywater systems is increasing.
“SEUDHD will likely apply for a permit (from the Utah Water Quality Board to administer a graywater systems program) when an application for a graywater system that is determined to be both feasible under the current code and cost effective is received,” he said.
Rogers said he is very interested in working with property owners on graywater design. However, he was candid about the hurdles in making graywater systems cost-effective under the present rules.
“Currently, the code is very restrictive, making small graywater systems almost impossible to install due to all the components required,” he said. “In essence, graywater systems under the current code are simply miniature septic systems in that they require a holding tank and a sub-surface dispersal system that is either pressurized or gravity fed. By the time everything is said and done, a person with a three-bedroom home would have a system that cost thousands of dollars that couldn’t keep a tiny lawn alive.”
In addition to the infrastructure requirements, there’s paperwork and professional consulting that must be done, and in Utah, that can only be done by a certified, on-site professional.
Grand County Building Official Jeff Whitney has long been a supporter of using graywater.
“I have a graywater system at my house,” Whitney said. “I believe in this stuff. It’s a viable use of the water that we have available to us.”
He added, “There are rules and guidelines set down by the state. At first glance, it seems onerous and hard to do. But I think it’s worth doing, if you’re doing it to save water. If you’re doing it to save money, no.”
Both Whitney and Rogers emphasized that the rules were created with public health in mind. Graywater can harbor dangerous bacteria and viruses. It is never potable, and direct contact should be avoided. Irrigating too close to a well can cause contamination, and graywater shouldn’t be applied directly to the edible parts of plants, or any leafy green like lettuce or kale.
Brain suggested that Utah could look to our neighbor to the south for inspiration on graywater reform. The Water Conservation Alliance of Southern Arizona (Water CASA) website tells the story of how, fifteen years ago, the organization “identified residential graywater reuse as having huge conservation potential and chose to research this issue from the perspective of water quality, public health and overall efficiency of water use.”
With funding from the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), Water CASA completed a Residential Graywater Reuse Study in 2000. They found that 13 percent of single-family residences were making use of graywater, often without a permit, and the actual risk in these existing systems was minimal to none.
The study results led the ADEQ to simplify the rules for using graywater, making it based on results rather than mandating specific equipment and procedure.
For example, since 2000, Arizona graywater law has stated that “surface accumulation of graywater must be kept to a minimum,” but how this is accomplished is left to the innovation of the system designer. Homeowners discharging less than 400 gallons per day do not even have to obtain a permit; they simply follow a list of “best practices.”
In the nearly 14 years since Arizona revamped its laws, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming and Montana have all adopted similar policies. Australia’s national policy is also similar.
Despite the potential risks, there has never been a reported case of illness caused by contact with graywater in the United States, according to the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors’ website.
Furthermore, the ADEQ has never heard of a single case in which a graywater system in Arizona was found to have any impact on public health, according to ADEQ Media Director Mark Shaffer.
“Since 2001, we have repeatedly asked those involved in regulation ‘has there been any instance where graywater has demonstrably impacted public health?’ And no, there has not,” Shaffer said.
Utah Department of Water Quality State On-Site Coordinator John Kennington said there has been some talk recently about considering revisions to Utah’s graywater law. But nothing has been scheduled, according to Kennington.
“We’ll certainly consider people’s comments when reviewing the rules,” he said, adding, “We place a very high priority on protecting human health.”
Brain and others say they ultimately hope that Utah regulators will determine that residents can have less regulation and necessary safety, too.
Systems could ease demands on Moab’s aquifer
“I have a graywater system at my house … I believe in this stuff. It’s a viable use of the water that we have available to us.” — Grand County Building Official Jeff Whitney