Looks like not all plumbers are simply average joes (sorry, couldn't help myself). According to this excellent article by Matthew Green of the East Bay Express, a league of "plumbing activists" are putting their technical skills to work combating California state codes that inhibit the widespread use of water-saving greywater systems.
The California policy, its shortcomings and the current controversy as described in the Express:
Drawn up in 1995 by California's departments of health and water resources, it was the first state-level graywater guidelines, inspiring a number of other states throughout the country to follow suit. Yet many advocates of graywater have long asserted that the code is outdated and unnecessarily restrictive, making it far too expensive and complicated for most homeowners to install their own systems, and ultimately resulting in millions of wasted gallons each year. Some have actively lobbied officials in Sacramento to amend the code to resemble those of more arid states such as Arizona and New Mexico, which have guidelines that they say are far more reasonable for the average homeowner.
"California has such a bad code and makes it so restrictive that basically no one follows it," said [Laura] Allen, 32, an elementary school teacher who devotes much of her free time to spreading the graywater gospel. "We talk of water scarcity when we actually have a lot of water that we're just dumping in the bay."
Allen is co-founder of Greywater Guerrillas, a group devoted to distributing the plans and information that residents and experts need to install effective, low-cost, safe but mostly very low-tech greywater solutions that will help them conserve and re-use water around their homes. The group's website offers instructions for building systems that require only a few hundred dollars' investment and minimal time compared to the thousands of dollars and months of permitting work required for code-compliant systems. (Allen is also editor of the book Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground, a resource for anyone interested in the history of water politics and the measures that individuals can take on their own.)
According to the article, quite a few professionals and policy makers in the region are critical of the code. And although those who earn their living as plumbers may be reluctant to risk breaking state rules, it seems that few officials are truly interested in cracking down on clandestine conservationists. But changing laws is a slow and frustrating process, and none of the relevant departments seems willing to shoulder the responsibility of changing the status quo.
Oakland resident and licensed plumber Christina Bertea offers a thoughtful take on the situation:
"I understand the mindset of formal training about following the code, but in this case it is more important to be reusing the water." With reasonable standards, she added, local utility districts could educate their clients on how to safely recycling [sic] graywater. "This precious thing, clean potable water at our tap, that much of the world wished they had, we use it once and dump it. We need to rethink our whole relationship to water."
It takes courage to challenge the system, particularly when doing so could threaten your professional license. But it's important to do so. Throughout history, groups of concerned and passionate citizens like the Greywater Guerrillas have often provided slow-moving governments with the momentum necessary to create real change. As global population increases and the amount of water on Earth remains the same, we'll need more people out there willing to fight and to live the change that we need.
(For more tips on how to conserve water in the American West, read this article in the Worldchanging archives.)
Photo credits: Maya Sugarman, East Bay Express.