By Dave Downey, North County Times
Backyard gray-water irrigation systems could become commonplace as a result of legislation signed into law over the weekend.
On Saturday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 849 by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, which says cities, counties and other local government agencies cannot prohibit gray-water systems, except in areas where special circumstances exist.
“We had gotten a number of calls from frustrated homeowners across Southern California, saying they were given a hard time by city building inspectors when they were trying to do the right thing, which is to conserve water,” Gatto said, in a telephone interview Monday.
Gatto said he wanted to make it easier for homeowners to install systems that irrigate gardens with waste water collected from washing machines, bathroom sinks and showers.
Under the new law he authored, agencies still will have the ability to bar gray-water systems.
But Gatto said they will have to hold hearings and demonstrate that special conditions warrant a prohibition.
He said one such condition might be that the ground water is just below the surface.
Gatto said such conditions conceivably could extend to every part of a relatively small city, but were not likely throughout an entire county.
Steve Bilson, owner of ReWater Systems, a gray-water consultant in the Ventura County city of Thousand Oaks, cheered the signing of the bill.
“It could be a game-changer for the concept of residential water reuse,” Bilson said.
Bilson’s business had been based in San Diego County for 14 years; he said he relocated to Thousand Oaks in 2009 out of frustration with San Diego County’s policy on the matter.
He said county environmental health officials repeatedly blocked his clients’ attempts to obtain permission to install gray-water irrigation systems, even though they were in line with state rules.
“It got so absurd that we said, ‘Let’s leave,'” Bilson said.
Gatto said San Diego County was one of the places he had received calls about.
Mark McPherson, chief of land and water quality for the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health, said the county does not go out of its way to make it difficult for people wanting to install gray water systems. McPherson said the county enforces the state regulations and issues permits when they are followed.
Gray-water systems have been legal in California since the mid-1990s. But concerns about their safety have led some local governments to take a hard-line approach to granting permission for them, and the state standards for their installation were said to be cumbersome.
For example, the piping had to be placed at least 9 inches below ground —- below the roots of some plants.
However, growing concerns about whether California will have enough water fueled new interest in the water recycling systems. And the state Department of Housing and Community Development issued modified rules in summer 2009 that allowed pipes to deliver gray water at the surface, as long as the delivery point is covered by mulch 2 inches thick.
And now there is a law that makes it harder for local governments to ban the systems outright.
Peter Odencrans, a spokesman for Eastern Municipal Water District, which delivers drinking water to several Riverside County cities from Murrieta to Moreno Valley, said his agency took a neutral position on the bill.
“It will be interesting to see if people do take advantage of that,” Odencrans said. “If it helps, great.”
Odencrans said the district did not come out in favor of the legislation because of its concern that such systems can cause gray water to back up into and contaminate clean drinking water piped into the home, if not installed properly.
“We just don’t want people to say, ‘I’m going to go out and jury-rig something,'” he said.
Like many providers in Riverside and San Diego counties, Eastern gets most of its water from the Colorado River and Northern California.
It is difficult to obtain accurate estimates on the number of gray-water systems out there, state and local officials say, in large part because many of them were built illegally without permits.
But backers of the Gatto bill say the gray-water system is going to go mainstream in a big way and that many more people are going to install them.
“It is a great idea,” Bilson said of the idea of irrigating with waste water in the home. “It is what California needs.”
He said gray-water systems not only save water, but also the energy used to pump water hundreds of miles south from Northern California.
And, he said, they ease pressure on sewage treatment plants by reducing the amount of dirty water headed for them.
“It uses water a second time,” Bilson said. “And the plants love it.”