U.S. Water News Online
NEW MARKET, Va. -- Rain-deprived homeowners in the nation's
Southeast are exploring every option available for saving their lawns
during one of the worst droughts on record -- including using
recycled waste water for the garden.
There's just one problem with that act of conservation: It's
restricted or outlawed in many areas.
"We're using our bathwater and shower water to flush toilets. We
were using it to water our trees but we stopped doing that because we
learned it was basically against the law," said Stacy Murphy of
Durham, N.C. "The trees have gone dormant, anyway."
"Gray water" is the discharge from a kitchen sink, laundry,
dishwasher, bathtub or shower stall. It's not clean enough to drink,
but it contains less nitrogen and fewer pathogens than "black water"
or toilet waste.
Still, it is capable of carrying enough bacteria to trigger
typhoid fever, dysentery, hepatitis and other gastrointestinal or
viral problems. Laura Leonard, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina
Division of Environmental Health, said gray water can have about the
same amount of fecal coliform bacteria as whole wastewater.
Gray water is often banned for irrigation for public health
reasons. But some have questioned the ban on plant watering for
"When the laws were drawn up some decades ago, it was more out of
public health concerns. But cholera epidemics are almost a thing of
the past," says Murphy, who has already cut corners as much as
possible. She and her husband don't wash their cars and have cut back
on washing their bed linens. And now they've stopped watering their
Gray water does little harm if it isn't sprayed directly on edible
plants and foliage, said Kim Coder, an extension forester with the
University of Georgia.
"It's hard to find a down side at all when you spray it on
ornamental trees and shrubs -- especially if you know what went into
it," he said. "If you're simply washing your hands or using
dishwasher detergent, the impurities become pretty diluted by the
time they flow from the house."
Coder participated in a pre-Thanksgiving Day meeting called to
determine if Georgia's gray water policies should be relaxed in the
midst of a lingering drought. While public safety trumps
conservation, he said officials should find ways to reduce risk and
"If it's a matter of losing a few begonias by not watering, that's
not a big deal. You can always replace them," he said. "But if you
lose a sizable tree from your front yard, it will be three
generations before you see its like again.
"That kind of thing might make it worth taking another look at our
half-century-old regulations to see if gray water can be used (for
Check your local ordinances to see if gray water can be used in
your area. The City of Gilroy, Calif., has published these safety
guidelines for gray water use during prolonged dry periods:
-- Do not connect your gray water drainage pipes to any part of
your interior or exterior plumbing system. This could result in
dangerous gray water backflow into your drinking water supply.
-- Gray water should not be used on root crops and such
low-growing food crops as carrots, radishes, onions, lettuce and
strawberries. Gray water may safely be used for taller non-root crops
including beans, corn and tomatoes if edible portions of the plant
aren't targeted. Gray water also may be used for turf grass, tree and
-- Ensure that any gray water used for irrigation soaks quickly
into the ground. Avoid creating ponds or generating runoff.
-- Do not irrigate with gray water if it was used for laundering
diapers or clothing and bedding coming from someone who was ill.
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