Graywater system pilot projects now underway in Moab

After a years-long collaboration between state regulators, permaculture designers, and homeowners, the first gravity-fed graywater system in Utah was recently permitted at the Moab home of Dr. Roslynn Brain, assistant professor in sustainability at Utah State University-Moab. Those close to the project said the permit opens the door for other graywater systems throughout the state, and Utah code is currently being revised to accommodate them.

“At this point, change is occurring,” said Orion Rogers, Southeast Utah Health Department’s environmental health scientist. “What that change is going to be is hard to say exactly yet but it looks like we’re on the right path for making graywater systems that much more feasible.”

Graywater is the relatively clean wastewater from laundry, showers and bathroom sinks. It can be used for irrigating landscapes instead of using fresh groundwater. Although graywater systems are legal in Utah, regulators agree that current provisions in state code, like requiring a surge tank, filter, and pump, inhibit the process, essentially creating what Rogers has called an expensive “miniature septic system.”

“Right now the process is very onerous and cost and space prohibitive,” said Bradon Bradford, environmental health director for the Southeast Utah Health Department.

Bradford told The Times-Independent that his department was “nudged” by Brain and Canyonlands Watershed Council Director Jeff Adams, who designed Brain’s graywater system, to consider more simple designs.

“ … We were anxious to see how a system would perform that does not have a storage tank as one of the required components,” Bradford said. “There is no doubt that we need to be better stewards of water in our state and we wanted to see if this would be a viable option for certain types of landscaping.”

After working with Brain and Adams, Rogers got approval earlier this year from the Utah Division of Water Quality (DAQ) for a graywater pilot program in Grand County.

Brain’s is the first permitted system as part of that pilot program. The system employs a branched drain, using gravity to move the water from the laundry and shower into two wood-chip mulched sub-surface irrigation areas to water fruit trees, native shrubs and grasses.

Brain can either turn the valve on the branched drain to water her landscape, or turn it in the opposite direction to move the graywater to the sewer system.

“The easier the system is, the more likely it is to be adopted. And this definitely is extremely easy for the homeowner,” Brain said. “[It’s just] remembering to switch a valve when there’s hard freeze, and then turning it on again in the spring.”

Although it may not meet the technical design requirements of Utah’s current graywater code, Health Department officials say Brain’s system does meet its actual intent — public safety and subsurface distribution of water. Bradford said Brain’s system is safe, viable and simple.

“If we are ever going to embrace graywater in Utah, it will be because of these types of simpler systems,” Bradford said.

Both Adams and Brain worked over the last year to present graywater information to change-makers across the state, from the environmental health association to a consortium of onsite wastewater professionals.

To the health officials, Adams mentioned that if all Utahans started using graywater to offset their existing water uses, a new water source of 68,000 to 98,000 acre feet would be created, approximately equal in size to the Scofield Reservoir.

“It’s a huge potential water source,” Adams said. “I think that’s a big part of what got their attention because [Governor Herbert] put out that executive order charging everybody with figuring out long term water conservation regardless of drought conditions.”

According to a 2010 study by the U.S. Geological Survey, Utah is both the second driest state and the second highest per capita domestic water consumer in the nation.

Although Moab may not face the more dire water conditions than other parts of the state, Rogers said it’s important to start thinking about the future.

“[In Moab], we’re blessed with amazing aquifers … but if we can save water, why not? And if we can help a change throughout the state, in an area that isn’t blessed with such wonderful aquifers, for them to be able to utilize the graywater systems, why not? There are other parts of the state that definitely have major water shortages,” Rogers said. “So let’s figure it out.”

As Adams and Rogers continue working on pilot graywater systems in Grand County, Michela Gladwell, onsite program coordinator with the DAQ is revising the state’s graywater code.

“Increased public interest in water conservation and reuse has prompted the [DAQ] as well as representatives from Utah’s local health departments to revise the graywater regulation,” Gladwell said. “The intent is to simplify the design and installation requirements of a graywater system.”

Gladwell expects the code revision to be open to public review and comment within the next year.

With such changes coming at the state level, Rogers encourages new homebuilders to plumb for graywater, noting that the cost of an extra pipe is “nominal” but it’s future potential benefits are great.

“If you’re building a new home and you want a system like this in the future, we’re working towards that. You can have the plumbing installed to graywater standard,” Rogers said. “ … They can put it in, stub it out, and as things change in the future we can always add a system.”

ByBy Molly Marcello

The Times-Independent