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Wednesday, March 5, 2008 | As he planned construction of a new home in San Diego, retired businessman Jim Call picked out familiar green accoutrements: rooftop solar panels, recycled steel supports and a design that keeps warm summer sunlight out.

Plotting a move to San Diego, the Minneapolis resident wanted to add another improvement, one that seemed perfectly logical in Southern California’s arid climate: A piping system that would use water from his bathroom sinks, bathtubs and washing machine to irrigate his lawn.

“I just hate waste,” Call said. “You buy treated, drinkable water and put it on the lawn, which doesn’t need drinkable water. My lawn is perfectly happy with contaminated water. I was surprised that everybody wasn’t doing it.”

But few are. The practice of using bathwater for irrigation, known as gray water recycling, has not spread widely across San Diego County. Since 1999, the county has issued just 53 permits for gray water recycling systems throughout the region.

Despite the increased attention on this arid county’s need to conserve and reuse every drop of water it can, gray water recycling hasn’t gained widespread popularity. In a region where irrigation is responsible for 50 percent of all water consumption, the process could reduce demand for potable water. But gray water is untreated and, if done improperly, has the potential to pollute groundwater supplies or other waterways.

Several factors are responsible for gray water’s lack of popularity. Retrofitting most existing homes is difficult because their pipes run beneath inaccessible concrete foundations. Systems, which store water and route it to underground drip irrigation, can cost as much as $7,000.

Call said he gave up on his efforts after being unable to sort through the red tape needed to get a permit.

And the region’s water agencies say they are more focused on large-scale efforts to recycle water such as the city of San Diego’s sewage-recycling pilot plan — not small-scale, backyard projects.

“Recycled water is a regional thing, it can be done in huge quantities,” said John Liarakos, a San Diego County Water Authority spokesman. “It’s quite a bit different from an individual internal home system. We’ve never seen a call for these kinds of systems to a degree that it would actually produce the kind of water savings that would have an impact. There just hasn’t been a request for them.”

Gray water recycling systems have a place in the region’s future water supply portfolio and should be installed on a broader scale, said Marco Gonzalez, an attorney for the Surfrider Foundation’s San Diego chapter. But it’s more cost-effective to recycle sewage as a drinking water source, Gonzalez said, a process that has been derided by critics as toilet-to-tap.

“Gray-water systems are designed to provide irrigation, not potable water. So in some way they work to continue to support the paradigm of over-landscaping our residences,” Gonzalez said. “We should be putting in plants that don’t use a lot of water, regardless of where the water comes from.”

One Chula Vista company, ReWater Systems, has installed almost every gray water system in the county. Steve Bilson, the company’s chairman and CEO, said he has had “hundreds” of people inquire about gray water technology in recent months. He calls it “showers-to-flowers.” A gray water recycling system can divert nearly half of a home’s indoor water use, he said.

Systems aren’t being installed, Bilson said, because San Diego County officials aren’t permitting them. Since 2005, the county hasn’t issued any gray water permits, a process followed to ensure the system meets state standards. A county official said that is because no one has applied. Bilson said no one is applying because the county has effectively banned gray water systems by repeatedly changing its permit and inspection requirements. Bilson has sued the county; trial is set for May.

Mark McPherson, chief of the county’s land and water quality division, said installers must prove the gray water system won’t impact groundwater. Though it doesn’t contain feces or food products — toilets and kitchen sinks can’t be hooked up — gray water is still untreated and is full of detergents, soaps and other untreated chemicals that must be kept out of groundwater and the ocean. Gray water, which is discharged beneath the ground, must be released at least five feet from the closest groundwater.

Digging to survey for groundwater can cost as much as $6,000, Bilson said, nearly doubling the cost of a system while duplicating work done when permitting home construction. Bilson points out that McPherson’s predecessor didn’t require such stringent proof that groundwater wasn’t present, relying instead on engineering studies completed during the construction process.

McPherson still believes gray water systems can play a role in the county.

“If they’re sited correctly and maintained correctly,” he said, “they’re a viable option for irrigation and cutting your water use.”

Bilson suggested that won’t happen until business picks up.

“The key in the big picture is to get the price of the system down to what everyone can afford,” he said. “The only way you can get that price down is if you’re selling a lot of systems.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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