Graywater Gangster

Columbia River Bonneville dam

Fresh Water

Reason why I’m called the “Gangster” of food, as opposed to “Hip Foodie Daddy” or “Househusband of Gastronomy” is because, unlike those guys, I’m not afraid of doing almost anything in pursuit of food procurance and preparation.

Take, for example, my garden. The house is poorly laid out for sun exposure (a blessing in this heat) and the soil is like something from a novel about the struggle of the peasantry: stony, heavy, unproductive. So I did what a Gangster of Food would do and built a 40- foot-long by 6-foot-wide by 22-inch-deep raised bed in the parking strip. I rented a six yard dump truck to get the dirt, which was a comic farce that will have to be put down in ink some other day.

Illegal raised bed

Not to Code

Shortly after I raised this behemoth of a planter box, the City of Portland drafted some new regulations on exactly these types of structures, and mine doesn’t meet the code in any conceivable way. I’m still waiting for the Maoists down at the Bureau of Transportation to swing by and tell me to knock it down. And with the influx of a more affluent and conventional bourgeoisie, I expect that visit to occur pretty soon. But beware party loyalists, you will regret the decision to inform on me to your city-planning apparatchiks, ’cause I got a load of crushed pumice rock and cacti to replace that lush, roadside oasis.

Childish? Nay, Gangster. You can’t be a gangster if you don’t retaliate.

This summer is hotter than usual, you may have noticed. Heat makes everything thirsty, especially plants. Now I’m not one of these anti-turf gangsters, who preaches the importance of an edible, native, low-water landscape. I like a section of turf to lay in and watch the kid run around and play, without worrying she’ll skin her knees like a miniature world cup competitor. Bad turf is no fun play on. FIFA knows it, I know it, and the ladies of the World Cup know it. So I have to water it, with drinking-quality water provided by the fifth most expensive municipal water system in the US.

Rock Garden

Lush Roadside Oasis

Rather than be afraid, I’ve taken it on to bail my laundry water out to the yard. I’m not sure how you feel about greywater, and I’m not sure that I care. In our lifetimes it will become nearly unthinkable, and perhaps illegal, to grow a garden with potable water from the municipal supply. Some believe that our fortunate hydrological situation is a permanent feature of the Pacific Northwest, but the current weather patterns, although quite possibly coincidental and short term, should give one pause. Even if our rainfall, snowpack, and river levels hold up over time, I’m sure everyone is aware that we’re going to have a larger population to share it with, especially when fueled by speculation that, in a warming world, this is possibly the most meteorologically optimistic place to be in the lower 48. Thanks again, Times.

Sure, we still have the 4th largest river in the United States, when measured by discharge at the mouth (gross, get some lysine on that mouth), but I wonder how many cubic feet per minute the Colorado River would add to the Pacific, if it could get there at all.

Barge on the Columbia

Fourth Largest River

In other words: California’s drought, apparently in its 13th year, is our drought. So, I’m getting ready for that inevitability, and saving a few bucks, by hauling the dirty water out and dumping it onto the lawn, and some of the perennials. I’m not that crazy about using it on the vegetables since, you know, fecal bacteria and all. Turns out I shouldn’t even worry about that.

“But how could you let your kid play on that disease-laden turf? Her next knee scrape could go septic! She could die from gangrene!” Yeah, and when she drinks her bathwater from the dank and moldering interior of a squeaking duck toy, she could infect herself with a rotavirus and die of dehydration. Life is full of risks, this is not one that I’m worried about, especially when faced with the one, single fact that matters more than this whole heaping pile of useless studies on “fecal coliform loads” and “pathogen exposure risks”: There hasn’t been one documented case of someone getting sick from greywater exposure.

That the State of Oregon is worried about these hypothetical risks is evident in their preening, hyper-vigilant regulation of the substance they have decided to call graywater (as opposed to the multitude of alternate spellings: greywater, gray water, grey water). Once again, even with my super-primitive system of buckets and time, I am not in compliance. My dream of a simple graywater system, costing maybe $300 in materials, and requiring a weekend or two of hard work, is equally noncompliant. I envisioned just cutting into the lavatory and bath drains, equipping the diversions with valves to divert to the sewer in the rainy season, and sending it all out to a system of water barrels and a couple of ¾ inch hoses to divert the water wherever I need it that day. That “tier 1” graywater system could buy me a visit from the gangsters at the DEQ. They’re like my rival gang.

Washing machine interior

To a plant, that looks appetizing.

The group Recode declared victory in 2012 when the State of Oregon released it’s regulations for external graywater reuse, but a close reading of the declaration makes it obvious that the victory is so limited and circumscribed that to the average homeowner, the situation hasn’t really changed. Recode imagines that an association of 20 or 30 homes could share the burden of a $1500 “tier 3” graywater permit, and the burden of an $800 annual renewal fee. The utopian neighborhood would share a greenhouse, a pond, and a central irrigation station, at a modest permitting cost. It sounds great! Except, that’s not the infrastructure that’s here. On my block we have 16 homes, and those are largely occupied by people who barely speak to one another. I’d be lucky to find two families interested in such a scenario.

Gangster, you’re getting aead of yourself. What are these ‘tiers’ you speak of?”

Indeed! Let’s go backwards. Tier 3 is the most complex and costly of the graywater scenarios. It involves filtering the water first through a physical filter like sand or gravel or an artificial medium to remove the larger solids. The second filtration method can consist of either a “performance-based treatment” or a “technology- based treatment” to further remove suspended solids and to remove or break down much of the dissolved organic matter. “Performance-based” means DIY and implies a biological processing—think miniature, containerized wetland—while “technology-based” means off-the-shelf—think expensive metal contraption. This sounds wonderful! I have always been fascinated by the idea of creating tiered series of aquatic planters, gently cascading from one to the next, brimming with reeds and cattails. Gorgeous! But the last step in the Tier 3 process involves chemical disinfection. Now, since you’ve made potable water from bathwater, you can feel free to use it however you like. I have a better idea: just let it flow down the drain and the city will filter and return it to the hydrological cycle. It will come back as clean rain.

Now, if you forego this chemical disinfection process, and just do the first and second stage treatments, you can disperse this water with a drip irrigation system. Alright, I’d rather just put a ¾ inch hose on the end and let the water flow where I need it, but I could work this out.

Price tag to get started on this “tier 2” graywater system: $582. That’s just for the permit and review process from the Oregon State DEQ. I still have to plumb the house to get the water from my fixtures (washing machine, lavatory sink, and bathtub) out of my house. To get the water to a place where it can flow through the system by gravity, I’m probably going to need a sump box and pump. All the diversions are going to require back flow preventers and diverter valves so that it can be sent down the drain in the wet months. According to Portland’s Bureau of Development Services fee schedule, that’s gonna be about a $300 permit. So, without having so much as picked up a hacksaw, I’m down nearly a grand. Surely there must be an easier and cheaper way.

There is! The “tier 1” permit is the most basic and involves just sending that dirty water out to the landscape. A $90 initial permitting fee, and a yearly renewal of $50, unless you want to submit an annual report? Okay, not so bad, we could just stick the washing machine drain out of a hole in the wall. But then we get to this bit that says that all “tier 1” graywater must be released at least 2″ below grade…now that is a sticking point. So, in order to use my bathwater to irrigate my lawn, I’d have to tear up the whole landscape and install subsurface plumbing. That’d take me all summer. I know that the intention isn’t that I’d do it myself. This is the New Portland, gone is the chaotic DIY spirit of the past. The dream of the ’90’s is in fact just a dream! Specialization reigns! The Bureau of Development Services and the DEQ figure that, if I wanted to save a little money, I’d call the plumber and the landscape architect myself, rather than hiring a general contractor. Let’s face it though: I may be saving water, but I’m not saving any money that way. I spend about $100 more a month during the dry season over the wet season. Assuming I can make the graywater do all of my irrigation, a generous assumption, that’s a savings of about $300 a year.

Let’s be crazy and say that the plumber is both cheap and reliable, and only charges $1000 in materials and labor to install diversion valves and drains from the bath, the lavatory sink, the dishwasher, and the washing machine to the exterior. With the permits, and interior plumbing, I’m up to $1400. Let’s say I’m an especially enterprising (and frugal) Portlander with a spark of the dream of the ’90’s left in my decaying old frame, and I figure I can set up the pump and gravity feed system on the outside of the house.

Outside, I’m going to need maybe four 55 gallon drums, some PVC and some valves, and a sump pump to get the water from subsurface to above grade, because now I’m going to need that gravity pressure to push it through these buried pipes and into the soil. If I find the drums cheap on CraigsList, and get a sump pump from the Depot, that’s another $250. Some people seem to think that your washing machine pump, in a simple system using only the laundry water, could push the water up to grade and through the lines. Have fun replacing your washing machine pump every couple of years. Even if you have enough subsurface pipe to hold 20 gallons of water (what my washing machine uses per cycle stage), and holes big enough to emit that water without getting plugged by lint, biofilm, detergent scum, or root incursions (I mean, WTF, right?), how are you going to ensure that the water disperses evenly along the length of the run, rather than just dump out at the beginning or the end? Whatever, we’re saving the environment! That’s the added value!

Now, we have to pay our landscape professional to not only design the layout of the subsurface watering system, and the landscape that will go back in above it, but to dig the trenches and lay the drip line. The line itself is only about $100 for 500 ft, But if we want to water the grass this way, and we do since we aren’t saving shit for water just irrigating those deep-rooted perennials, we might need 1000 ft or so to distribute it. Without actually making a guy come out to give me an estimate, I’m going to (very generously!) guess $1000 for that work.

To recap:

Plumbing permit
Greywater permit
Distribution materials
Drip Line
Landscaper and architect

Oh, wait, I forgot running the electric line for the pump! And the electric permit! And the fittings for the drip line! Whatever, we’re already up to nearly 10 years before we can see a return on this investment. It’d be money better spent on almost anything else.

Gangster, why don’t you just use rain barrels and harvest the rain like everyone else?”

Oh, okay. I suppose I could put maybe six 55 gallon drums outside, and harvest the rain from September through June, and use all 330 gallon up in the first two weeks of July. Then they can sit there and take up space (but make me look like a real environmentalist) until it starts to rain again. I’m pretty sure the rain barrel people haven’t thought too hard about the real utility of those things.

I sound like such a tea party moron, don’t I? Down with regulations! Down with the state! I need my FREEDOM!

No, I believe in the power of government to protect society from the individual. I do believe that individual freedom needs to be balanced against social freedom. I’m all for smart regulations that preserve a high quality of life for all. I am not for regulations that restrict an individual’s activities based upon marginal and/or hypothetical risks. Hypothetically, I’m creating an elevated risk of disease transmission when I forget my towel in the bathroom, and have to run from the tub with wet feet. Hypothetically, a dish sponge should be disposed of four hours after it’s first use. Hypothetically, the filthy, shitting cat is an absolutely untenable disease risk. I’ve been trained in Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocols—you people don’t know who you’re fucking with.

All of which is to say that dumping wash water on the lawn is hardly more of a risk than wearing shoes inside the house. Actually, it’s less of a risk. The lawn is at least subjected to fresh air and sunlight all day, every day of the summer months. The floor just festers until it’s washed. If the State really wanted people to reuse their water, they’d give them a financial incentive to do so. What we have instead is a system that locally penalizes water use through high rates, and on a state level disincentivizes smart landscape irrigation through high permitting fees and unnecessarily complicated filtration and disbursal systems.

You’re not just willing to take my word for it though, are you? “Where’s the proof, Gangster? We demand Science, not just the unhinged raving of a guy who bails his wash water.”


Looks sinister; Tastes great!

Alright, here’s a thesis paper in which the author irrigated three types of crops: roots, leaves, and fruits, with graywater, and a control group of the same with potable water. Although the graywater was crawling with disgusting fecal micro-organisms, the crops irrigated with the graywater were still apparently safe to eat. I still wouldn’t irrigate my carrots with untreated graywater, but good to know that I probably could.

Here’s a fun group who ran a probability model (a hypothetical projection), of the risks posed by the fact that drought-stressed Australians use graywater to water their lettuce, and some of them fail to wash that dirty lettuce. They looked specifically at norovirus—the stomach flu—and found that the additional risk added up to a little less than one extra case of stomach flu per person, every 33 years. They also looked at “the amount of faeces per pair of underwear.” Now, how are we going to trust a bunch of dirty bum-sniffers like that?

Here, the study authors irrigated several plots with biologically-treated graywater, and several others with tap water, then they tested the soil to see which one had more pathogens. The result? You know the result: dirt is dirty, whatever kind of water you dump on it.

Here again, graywater irrigated plots were analyzed for pathogens and pathogen indicators and compared to plots irrigated with freshwater. “Noise”, such as bird droppings, made the freshwater irrigated control groups sometimes more fecal-contaminated than the experimental sites. In addition, the graywater sites with highly sophisticated filtration systems were as pathogenically rich as those that simply involved hooking a water hose to the washing machine.

Reading studies like this one from the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control give the reader the sense that the purpose of these exercises is merely to imagine problems for which technological solutions can be invented.

Finally, let’s face the disgusting reality that graywater in France is probably much cleaner than here in the land of the dirty-bum. I mean, if you washed your ass after using it, there would be precious little fecal matter to get onto your panties, and into your wash.

Could graywater hurt the soil though, Gansgter?

Look, I don’t have time to hold your hand through this whole thing, but let me break it down to you: not unless you put bleach or something in your greywater. I personally use all these expensive “natural” plant-based soaps and detergents, despite my deep suspicions that they really do nothing except make us feel good about ourselves. Speculation suggests that sodium, boron, and phosphates might accumulate in the soil, but that hasn’t been born out in these studies. Furthermore, we live in Western Oregon. Nothing has very long to build up in the soil before being flushed out by months of rains.

But here’s a meta-analysis for you: “most studies that have examined the impacts of wastewater effluent have shown a benefit to soil microbial communities due to the inputs of organic matter and nutrients.” No wonder my turf is starting to look green again.

green grass

Green grass, great times

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