"We need to stop using pristine drinking water to flush our toilets and to do landscaping," says San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener. “We are in a crisis and we need to act like we're in a crisis.”
San Francisco is the latest Bay Area city to try reusing water as a solution to the drought. Other cities are trying laundry-to-landscape systems, which recycle water by piping it from the washing machine to the garden.
In Palo Alto, all new homes and commercial buildings are now required to come equipped with laundry-to-landscape systems. San Jose hopes to pass a similar mandate within a year.
But Supervisor Scott Wiener's ordinance goes farther by requiring large, new buildings in San Francisco to reuse water from several sources, not just from the washing machine. He wants large residential and commercial buildings (250,000 square feet or more) to reuse rain water, storm runoff, shower water and laundry water -- choosing from a range of sources to meet a target for water use.
"We've gotten a generally positive response from developers,” Wiener says. “Some of whom have told us, 'Oh, we were already thinking about doing this, so it's great that you're giving us this push.’"
Not all developers appreciate the push, though. Kent Cleaveland is with the Building Owners and Managers Association of San Francisco. He says he's all for saving water, but says commercial buildings don't use enough water to justify spending $200,000 to $400,000 on reuse systems.
"Think about all that we've done already to make buildings in San Francisco the most sustainable in the world, quite frankly,” Cleaveland says. “And this is just one more cost that's being added and it's going to be passed on to the customer whether they be a commercial tenant or a residential renter."
Graywater at Home
Alan Hackler, owner of Bay Maples Wild California Gardens, has cut his water use by 80 percent, by recycling water from his washing machine, shower and sinks to his garden.
As chickens peck the dirt around him, Hackler fiddles with a valve. A network of pipes in his backyard carry water to a patch of budding fruit trees and a constructed wetland, home to fish and a turtle.
"It's funny that we will pay money to get rid of our graywater, or our wastewater, and then pay more money to bring new water in,” Hackler says. “Versus, eliminate that, the water that comes in, just use it on site and reuse it on site."
Hackler was able to recycle so many water sources because his plumbing is in the basement, not hidden under a concrete foundation. Where the pipes are hidden, it can be prohibitively costly to get under the foundation to link up a graywater system.
But even with simple, laundry-to-landscape systems, homeowners can cut their water use by, perhaps, 20 percent or more. That’s what Megan and Mark Medieros of San Jose are hoping.
"You know sustainability and living a sustainable lifestyle doesn't have to mean that you're suffering,” Megan says, “or that you're giving up anything.”
Megan says she loves the low-water use garden they planted after tearing out the lawn. They water the garden from a bucket in the shower. But they wanted to do more. That's why they hired Alan Hackler.
With a loud rattling noise, Hackler wrestles a washing machine away from the wall, revealing cobwebs and a confusing array of pipes. He holds up a brass pipe with a lever on it. "This is the key component of the system,” he says. “It's a brass three-way valve."
The valve allows Megan and Mark to decide where their laundry water goes. Once everything is connected, the water from the washing machine can go either to the sewer, or to the backyard.
"Our laundry uses a lot of water,” Megan says. “Basically every load we have is like 50 gallons of water. It's really crazy if we do a large load."
After drilling a hole in the floor and cutting some pipe, Hackler attaches one end to the new valve and threads the pipe through the floor to the basement. From there, he'll feed water to the garden. All Megan and Mark have to do is use a special laundry soap.
"Anyone can do a laundry system,” Hackler says. “If you've ever fixed a drain under your sink, you have the same skill level to install a graywater system."