The most common type of gray water system is a “laundry to landscape” setup, where the water from a load of laundry flows down a set of pipes into a yard or garden. Depending on specifics like the location of the washing machine in a home, homeowners can install a gray water system on their own. The most straightforward projects don’t require a permit and can cost just a few hundred dollars. Other types of systems are more involved and require permits and professional installation.
But the most cost-efficient way to start using gray water immediately? Put a bucket in the shower while you’re waiting for the water to heat up. Then, use it to flush the toilet or water plants. Gray water should never be stored for more than 24 hours, and laundry-to-landscape systems do require a switch to eco-friendly detergent.
Toilets aren’t the only fixtures that have evolved in the past several decades. One analysis found that residential water use nationwide dropped by 22% between 1999 and 2016 — and that’s by and large because appliances have gotten more water-efficient.
So has outdoor irrigation. But we don’t always jump to make fixes and upgrades that can save money — and water in the long run — says Justin Burks of Valley Water in Santa Clara County.
“A new smartphone comes out [and] a lot of us will go out and get that new version,” Burks says. “But many of us live with the same irrigation equipment from 20 or 40 years ago.”
Newer irrigation systems come with smart controllers that respond to the weather and measure moisture content in the soil, so the landscape only gets watered when it really needs it. Drip irrigation and high-efficiency sprinklers can also have a significant impact.
Other small fixes to cut back on water use: check your toilet for leaks (a simple dye test kit does the trick). An estimated 20% of all toilets leak, and in some cases, a leak can waste a gallon of water every hour. Another quick fix is to install a faucet aerator, which limits the flow of water.
About half of all the water used in urban California goes to one place: landscaping. Oftentimes, that means watering a wide, flat, lawn that requires consistent, and heavy, water use. Switching out the lawn for a garden featuring California native plants can save significant amounts of water, and bring a host of other benefits.
A nine-year study conducted by the city of Santa Monica found that a California native plant garden not only used 83% less water than one with a lawn and shrubs, but also created far less waste and required less maintenance.
Wildlife and insects thrive in gardens with California native plants, too, says Julie Saare-Edmonds, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Water Resources. She says she’s seen a growing interest in native plant gardens — especially in drought years.
The best native plants vary significantly depending on location. The California Native Plant Society maintains a vast database, called Calscape, of regionally appropriate native plants. Gardners can decide whether they want to see plants that attract butterflies, plants with extremely low water needs, as well as low-maintenance options. And the California Department of Water Resources has a comprehensive guide for how to make the transition.
And if you want to go further, each Bay Area county has a master gardener program. Seasoned gardeners are available to answer questions about designing native plant and drought-friendly gardens. Many also have demonstration gardens where newcomers can learn about their options, and find some inspiration.
How to pay for it
Many water agencies in the Bay Area will help you cover the costs of using less water at home. Most often, this comes in the form of a rebate for projects like gray water installation, a smart flow meter, or a switch to a drought-friendly garden.
Renters can take advantage of some of these programs, too, by switching in a free, water-efficient showerhead (that you can swap out when you leave) or tipping your landlord off to how they can replace an old toilet at no cost.
We’re highlighting a few programs offered by local water agencies, but check your provider for even more deals and specifics.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District offers rebates for flow meters that collect data on how much water you use, and where in your home. The agency has also doubled its rebate for converting yards into drought-friendly gardens.
Contra Costa County offers rebates up to $1,000 for homeowners to ditch the front lawn.
In Marin County, the water district has rebates for rainwater storage systems and free mulching services — another way to have a drought-friendly yard.
Valley Water in Santa Clara County offers rebates up to $400 for installing gray water systems.
San Francisco‘s Public Utilities Commission has a range of options — including free toilet replacement.
Many cities in Sonoma County have their own programs, which include rebates for turf removal and free fixtures like showerheads and faucets.
Options in San Mateo County include rebates for rain barrels.
Napa County will evaluate your water use at home for free and help you strategize how to cut back on water use.
Solano County offers rebates to upgrade to a high-efficiency washing machine and switch to smart irrigation controllers.