Greywater garden

Greywater: Coming Soon, to a State Near You

I just found out through the Greywater Guide that Oregon has been working on adopting a permitting process for greywater systems. I know people who’ve been trying to make this happen for a long time, but seeing it in print just now, this is the moment where it got real, and a giant, giddy laugh started rattling around inside me.

Greywater systems have been on my mind since I first read about them: first, because they’re such a good idea; and second, because what are the chances the local building office would ever let you build a home that relies on a system like that?

What’s greywater?

If you’re new to this idea, there are three kinds of water.

  • Drinking water. Water you can drink. The kind that comes out of your kitchen faucet, bathtub faucet and toilet faucet, too.
  • Blackwater. Sewage. Poop water: don’t touch it. It can also be water that looks harmless but is full of pathogens; for example, the feet water of fairy tales.
  • Greywater. The in-between water. It’s not gross; five minutes ago you were bathing your baby in it, or washing your dishes, or your clothes — but now it’s used and not good to drink (though let’s be honest, five minutes ago the toddler was slurping it out of a bath toy). Left untreated, it turns to blackwater within hours (again with the feet water).

Greywater systems are designed to take this somewhat-dirty water and purify it, so it can be safely released back into the natural world, rather than piping it to a septic system or a sewage treatment plant somewhere. To do so, they route the used water through sand, or biologically active topsoil perhaps (there are several purification methods), filtering it and letting microorganisms clean it for you. For example:

Laundry to Landscape greywater illustration

Why should we care?

Having an on-site greywater system is a smarter use of resources for the community. Instead of investing effort and infrastructure in moving this water to a treatment facility far away (I’m assuming you don’t have your own septic tank), you can just clean it on-site.

It’s also a better use of resources for the individual. When you use greywater to irrigate your trees, you’re getting twice as much good out of that water. First the bath; now the garden. That’s water you don’t have to buy twice (I’m assuming you don’t have your own well).

Even if you have your own septic tank and your own well, a greywater system means you’re consuming less, conserving water. You’re also irrigating the area where you live and managing your waste sustainably.

To me this is exciting because it feels responsible, to take care of your own waste; and thrifty, to get so much use from something you could have thrown away; and connected: how cool is it to know exactly where your water goes after it runs down the drain? To know that the fruit you pick was nourished by your bathwater? To participate so directly in the cycles taking placing around your home, the living world?

It means your everyday activities are tied to the immediate systems playing out around you. That feels more authentic to me. Less disconnected, less industrial. More animal. More human.

So what about these new regulations?

I was just reading the proposed regulations for greywater systems in Oregon when I realized my heart was beating with this amped up, heady feeling. Somewhere between pages five and seven, it started to sink in: we can actually do this.

In my mind, greywater has been in the category of “wouldn’t it be awesome, but they’ll probably never let us.” There are a lot of ideas in that category, speaking of our dream house. Most of the home design and construction ideas that appeal to me are unconventional.

I don’t know if these proposed rules have become official at this point or not (UPDATE: they have). But I am excited and grateful to live in a State where weirdos who are activists and hippies who are lawyers have been working to get ideas like these into law.