"Sand from the Mojave had blown across [Los Angeles] ... here was the desert beneath these streets, around these streets, waiting for the city to die, to cover it with timeless sand once more."
John Fante, Ask the Dust

by Jack Innis
ohn Fante was not the only noveist to contemplate life in Southern California during an epic drought. Mary Austin, John Muir, Aldous Huxley and John Steinbeck each wrote of parched desert visions after visiting the Southwest.
Take a good look eastward and you, too, will see that the streets of our cities sit on the fringe of a gigantic desert. Our Mojave Desert is roughly the size of the Dominican Republic. These same streets also sit above a pitifully inadequate groundwater supply.
"The majority of our groundwater is iffy at best, even for irrigation," says Matt Haynes, San Diego County Agriculture Waste Management Program director. "Locating the small pockets of trapped rainwater can be a crap-shoot and the flow rate and water quality often are disappointing. The flow rate from the well can be low and the salt content too high for many of the crops that thrive here, avocados, for instance."
Literally all of the water we use for drinking, flushing, cleaning and irrigation is piped in, at great expense, from the Colorado and Sacramento rivers. It is no small wonder that water recycling (or reclamation) is beginning to become more prevalent.
Recycled water is used solely for landscape irrigation. When recycled from households, this water is termed gray water. When recycled from sewage treatment plants, this water is called reclaimed water.

Gray water at home

Gray water systems for homes represent a small, but important, aspect of water recycling. In a typical gray water system, water is diverted from sinks, bathtubs and laundry rooms into a holding tank and then used in lieu of drinking water to nourish landscape. Toilet water never is used. Also, water from kitchen sinks with garbage disposals generally is inappropriate due to bits of organic material that can clog lines and encourage bacteria.
Although the gray water plumbing apparatus is quite simple, there are several important issues to consider before deciding whether to recycle water from your home. How much water can be saved? Is gray water use legal? How safe is gray water?
It is a shame to irrigate your lawn with drinking water. Most landscapes use between 50 to 75 percent of a home's total water use, according to a report published by the University of California. A gray water system could lower those percentages drastically.

Gray water laws

Legally, only two areas in California have approved gray water as a permissible option. They are Santa Barbara and San Louis Obispo counties.
However, the hidden nature of the average home's plumbing makes any plumbing code violation nearly impossible to enforce. Changes in the California Uniformed Plumbing Code to allow home waste water collection systems, while often batted around during drought years, never have gained approval.
"There has been a lot of effort to move the laws in that direction, especially in drought years, to provide guidance to the homeowners so they could do this and do it safely," says Peter MacLaggan, director of the San Diego Water Authority Water Reclamation Program. But the state and county health boards, ". . . tend not to trust the individual homeowner and their capabilities to do this properly so they frown upon it."
There are hidden dangers in misusing gray water. Contaminated gray water can spread parasites, viruses and bacteria. A few of the worst examples are typhoid fever, amoebic dysentery and hepatitis. If anyone in a household using gray water should come down with an illness, the gray water should immediately be returned to the sewer system.
Some things found in gray water actually can benefit lawns and gardens.
"Gray water is not just a strategy for mere survival," says Robert Kourik, author of Gray Water Use in the Landscape. "Your landscape can flourish with the use of recycled water. Gray water has minute amounts of fertilizers-phosphates from detergents, dirt from the laundry and protein from the cells of dead skin and rinsed-off body oil-which help promote plant growth."
Along with the rewards of a gray water system, Kourik says, the additional responsibility incurred must be considered.

Golden State green

Collectively, Southern Californians are more adept at keeping the desert from encroaching than they are individually. State and local governments are playing an increasingly larger role in water re-use at the agency level.
"They are taking water from waste water treatment plants and adding high-tech treatment on the tail end of the plant to polish the water so it's suitable for irrigation applications," MacLaggan says.
The treated water is sent to large scale irrigators such as CalTrans, golf courses, city parks and schools. Smaller water users, such as homes, will be added in the future. Most municipalities in Southern California already have adopted ordinances that require that all new construction includes irrigation systems. Individual homes already will be on-line to accept recycled water systems as they become available.
On larger scales, where it has been shown to be cost effective, reclamation projects have netted phenomenal water savings. In San Diego, there are 17 projects, some large and some small, in various stages of completion. On a typical summer day last year, 17 million gallons of waste water were recycled through them.
The immediate goal of the San Diego Water Authority is to achieve a 100 million gallon-per-day savings by the year 2010. To reach this lofty goal, an infrastructure must be built that will reroute recycled water from all San Diego County sewage treatment plants.
"Thirty-seven percent of what we're seeking already is under construction," MacLaggen says, "but it will take until the latter part of this decade to begin to see the benefits."
The net effect of expanding our water recycling efforts is that when the next drought does come, Southern California will be less reliant on outside sources. The parks, open spaces and schools that we all cherish will have a guaranteed supply regardless of what the drought may bring us.
As John Steinbeck described the dreaded Mojave Desert in Grapes of Wrath: "Tom and Al and Pa, and Winfield on Pa's Knee, looked into the bright descending sun, and their eyes were stony, and their faces were damp with perspiration. The burnt land and the black, cindery hills broke the even distance and made it terrible in the reddening light of the setting sun."
Remember, there is desert beneath our feet..

Jack Innes is a freelance writer from Oceanside, California. More than 40 of his outdoor and environmental articles have been published nationwide. He is an alumnus of San Jose State University with majors in English and industrial design.