.Why Water-Saving Strategies Matter

Even After a Rainy Year

The rains bring us grace. Outside, the plants bounce and grow, with glistening raindrops on their petals, leaves and stems. Back in the inside world, no one is droning on fearfully about drought on radio or TV news. The water agencies aren’t pushing us to conserve, and there is no water rationing. The reservoirs are full!

With the drought officially over in every county in California, it’s natural to think water conservation is, well, passé. But there are many good reasons to protect our water resources. Experts can’t predict the weather after 2025. Things could change on a dime.

Today, most municipalities in California prefer that residents keep rainwater on site. In the past, that was considered theft in some places. Rain was considered public property. Today, sometimes it’s even mandated to keep stormwater onsite. If we don’t capture rain, it flows into the storm drains and out to the ocean, taking with it car oil, trash, pet waste and other icky stuff. When that happens, surfers and sea mammals can get sick with bacterial infections.

The easiest thing to do to catch rainwater is to create a water-retentive landscape—e.g., mulch 4 to 8 inches deep. This wicks moisture into the soil, where plants can use it. Rain gardens, dry creekbeds, and infiltration basins all look like naturalistic landscape features, but they also capture rainwater, to the benefit of the garden.

Greywater was actually illegal until water activists started lobbying hard. In 2009, the California Plumbing Code was updated; for the first time, greywater became legal. It was a time of celebration. Greywater is water reuse, which ultimately reduces the effluent that spills into the ocean, polluting it.

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Santa Cruz gets more average rainwater in a year than most of the state—about 31 inches of rain per year and well over 100 in the mountains. For comparison, San Jose averages about 16 inches of rainwater in a year.

The numbers are persuasive. For example, about 600 gallons of rainwater can be harvested off of a 10-by-10-square-foot roof during a 1-inch rain storm. That adds up to 18,600 gallons per year. You can harvest water off all structures..

How it works: Start with gutters and downspouts that are in good repair. Water needs to be able to flow through them freely, down into a tank. Some municipalities give out small 55- or 65-gallon tanks for free. They can be used singly, or daisy-chained together. Tanks should be fitted with spigots for accessing the water, screened lids to keep out debris, and overflow pipes.

In Santa Cruz, environmentalists had been putting in greywater systems on the down-low, until legalization in 2009.

Greywater can help a household cut its water use by nearly half.

Greywater systems require few upfront costs and few or no permitting hurdles.Nutrients from bits of skin, dirt and earth-friendly cleansers—which contain biodegradable compounds—are broken down by soil microorganisms and alchemize into plant food. (By the way, greywater is never, ever toilet water. That’s blackwater.)

Most homeowners opt for so-called “simple systems.”  Laundry-to-landscape systems send wash water to the garden; they don’t require a permit and are easy to install for handy DIYers, who need to spend only $200 to $250 for materials. To have a contractor do the installation, the average cost is $1,500 to $2,500.

 Branched drain systems divert bath and bathroom sink water by separating it from toilet water and then piping it to the garden. These do require a simple permit, which costs around $150 and is (or is supposed to be) easy to get. It involves a simple alteration to the plumbing of the bathroom sink or shower. They can be more complex to install.

Greywater works well with roses, lavender, and many perennials and shrubs.  The exception is acid-loving plants like rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias. It also is also suitable for edible plants, particularly fruit trees, vines and plants that are staked or trellised. Greywater should never touch the edible parts of a plant; it should not be used to water strawberries, root crops  or leafy greens.


DO keep in mind that there is not a single documented case of anyone getting sick from greywater. This is why it was legalized in 2009 when the California Plumbing Code was updated.

DO install a clearly labeled three-way valve (see picture), which directs water to the landscape or the sewer. The valve, which is necessary, gives you a choice of where to send the water. It is installed on a wall next to the washing machine, or shower or sink in the bathroom.

DO use biocompatible household cleaners, personal care products and laundry detergents that are free of hazardous chemicals, toxins, salts or boron. Bleach, other toxic chemicals, and wash water from baby diapers, should always go to the storm sewer, not the garden.

DO make sure that greywater is always covered with 3 inches or more of mulch, gravel or soil in the landscape. It should never be exposed, form a pool, or run off your property—that’s sloppy.

DO keep greywater away from playgrounds and recreational facilities, and minimize contact with kids and pets. Keep greywater at least 100 feet away from waterways.

DON’T store greywater, or it will become blackwater.

DON’T run greywater through sprinklers to water your lawn—it’s illegal. Plus, it will clog your sprinklers. Greywater is best for planted and mulched landscapes, not lawns. If you want to use greywater for drip irrigation, there are neat high-tech filtration solutions like Aqua2Use.


The Environmental Working Group rates products on toxicity, helping inform consumers on which ones are safe for greywater.

The Central Coast Greywater Alliance offers clear explanations and a directory of installers.

Oasisdesign.net is the website of Art Ludwig, known as the godfather of greywater. It is the most information-packed website on all aspects of greywater, with all questions answered and greywater installation materials available for sale.

Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Vols. 1 and 2, 3rd editions (2019, Rainsource Press) by Brad Lancaster (harvestingrainwater.com) is an inspiring and creative how-to book with great text and illustrations showing land-based ways to save water, such as through creating moisture-retentive landscapes.

Visit the Water Institute at Occidental Arts & Ecology Center in Mendocino County, where they give tours and host trainings. Or find a plethora of the latest water conservation news online.

The company bushman.com makes good-quality rainwater tanks in a wide range of colors, shapes and sizes.

Check if your municipality or water agency offers rebates. Look at the “Rebate” page on the websites for information. It’s an easy application process.


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