Ask Eartha: Support legislation to reuse grey water
Dear Eartha, My neighbor keeps a bucket at the bottom of their tub while they shower to collect water that they use in their garden. Does that really make a difference?
You hear a lot about recycling from High Country Conservation Center. Summit County recycles aluminum cans, glass bottles, mattresses, and the list goes on. What about recycling water?
As Colorado’s population grows, so does the demand for clean water. The state’s population has boomed to over 5.7 million and is projected to increase to 7.8 million by 2040. All this growth adds stress to our local rivers that are already stressed due to climate change and drought. This is a complex issue, so how can any one person help?
The Colorado Water Plan says, “If we are wise stewards of our water resources, Colorado has enough water to meet our state’s future needs.”
It’s going to take all of us to change our mindset about water use, and this is where people like your neighbor might be onto something.
What is grey water?
When your neighbor puts that bucket at the bottom of their tub and collects the excess water for plants, they are recycling grey water. Grey water is any water that comes from your showers, tubs, bathroom sinks or washing machines. This wastewater can be reused elsewhere before it leaves your home and enters the sewage system. The most common ways to recycle household grey water are irrigating plants like your neighbor or for reuse in toilets. This is an excellent way of saving water and money because grey water is available every time you wash your clothes or take a shower.
Keep in mind that grey water does not come into contact with urine, fecal matter or food, which contaminate the water and make it difficult to filter and clean for reuse. The kind of water that comes from the toilet, urinals, dishwashers and kitchen sinks is considered blackwater and cannot be reused.
Colorado’s take on grey water
While your neighbor’s bucket captures grey water from the shower, grey water collection can also be a more permanent practice. The University of Colorado Boulder built a grey water system in 2016 within the Williams Village North residence hall. The building’s plumbing captures and processes about 2,200 gallons of waste water per day from sinks and showers for reuse in toilets. This is one of the only large-scale water reuse systems in Colorado. But there is a catch: Boulder has not yet formally approved use of grey water systems; the system operates under a research exemption.
In 2015, the Water Quality Control Commission adopted grey water regulations for Colorado called Regulation 86. That regulation outlines the requirements, prohibitions and standards for grey water in Colorado to minimize the risks of reuse on human health. While these regulations determine the levels of treatment that are necessary to make grey water safe, the statute made grey water an opt-in program for local jurisdictions. Therefore, built-in grey water systems are allowed only if a city or county chooses to adopt a local program that meets the requirements of Regulation 86.
Summit County has not yet adopted the regulations for grey water outlined by the state, making grey water treatment the same as blackwater. As a result, internally built grey water reuse systems for toilets have not yet been explored, and building grey water reuse systems for irrigation, what are known as laundry-to-landscape systems, have not yet been approved.
The future of water savings
While Colorado has made moves on grey water regulation, states like California are ahead of the pack. Laundry-to-landscape systems are available to California homeowners without a permit. This saves a homeowner an average of 40,000 gallons of water per year. And the Rush Creek Lodge in the high Sierras has a gravity-fed reuse system that recycles 3.3 million gallons of water annually, using zero energy to irrigate 95% of the landscape.
Could this be possible in Colorado? Not if you don’t speak up. It is easy to find legislators’ contact information at Leg.Colorado.gov, or email your town council about water priorities. After all, water is essential to life and the future of our mountain community. Grey water is another drop in the bucket, so to speak, in water savings for Colorado, and every drop counts. Will you advocate for the future of grey water in Colorado?
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com.
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