Taking Action

All hands on deck. The greywater install team. Photo: Simran Sethi.

A consensus is emerging that water conservation is about to become one of the preeminent issues facing humanity. A recent survey suggests that 36 states anticipate water shortages as early as 2013. Parts of Africa are already experiencing deadly tribal conflicts over water rights as climate change alters access, and these conflicts are sure to spread and increase in intensity as population demand grows and pollution pressures increase.

As these obstacles play out close to home and across the globe, many in first world countries (Americans being among the worst) blindly waste precious resources. Of the world’s total water supply, 2.5 percent is fresh, but less than 1 percent is readily accessible for human consumption. The average American uses nearly 152 gallons of this water per day—60 percent of which is used for outdoor applications. To put this into perspective, this consumption rate is more than double that of the average European (who only uses 66 gallons per day) and more than 30 times higher than the five gallons per day used by the 1.1 billion people who lack sufficient water resources. Upon learning of these alarming statistics, you might ask yourself, what can be done to curb this disparaging trend of excessive water consumption?

As part of an interdisciplinary journalism, architecture and environmental studies course at the University of Kansas, we have been asking ourselves just that question. Throughout the semester, we have delved deeper and deeper into these issues, challenging our perceptions and misconceptions about water conservancy. Starting with techniques like adopting the mantra, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow,” we began to whittle away at our water usage, but nothing has hit home quite as hard as a trip halfway across the country. Over spring break, with our academic sensibilities in tow, we hit the road for Oakland, California and a residential greywater installation.

Once in Oakland, we set out to install a residential greywater system under the guidance of Greywater Action, a collective of hands-on instructors and builders devoted to educating the public on the virtues of greywater and water conservation. The purpose of a greywater system is to redirect water that would otherwise be wasted as sewage after washing machine, shower or sink use and diverting it for reuse elsewhere. In our case, we were charged with the task of rerouting water from a washing machine to a backyard garden.

As California continues to struggle with water distribution, the need for greywater systems of all shapes and sizes seems particularly apt. What’s more, California is one of the few states to allow greywater systems by code.

The antiquated permitting policies of many states have actually made it illegal to construct even the most basic of greywater systems. Some estimates put the number of legally installed greywater systems at less than 2% of the total. Fears of improperly installed systems have kept many jurisdictions from adopting laws that allow the application of greywater, but as states like Arizona and California feel the effects of an impending water crisis, they are leading the way in greywater legislation. Yet, even with the implementation of forward thinking legislation, California code continues to impose excessive limits on greywater systems. Those at Greywater Action view Arizona’s permitting process as model policy to expand towards.

It was California’s water struggles and it’s embrace, although limited, of greywater that led our class to Oakland. The install began with an introduction to greywater by Laura Allen, of Greywater Action, highlighting the need for greywater systems. Greywater Action regularly directs similar courses for those interested in greywater installations. Next, we launched into the pipes and fittings required for the install, and came to the realization just how inexpensive—$100 to $250—a Do-It-Yourself system can be (especially when compared to the savings in water expenses over the life of the system). After learning the basics, we took our newly found knowhow and set to work on the system just as rain began to fall.

The next portion of the install was a muddy lesson in trench digging. As the rain poured down around us, we persistently dug the shallow trenches and mulch basins required to lay out the network of progressively smaller hoses and outlets that strategically feed the desired plants. While excavation was underway outside, inside a team was assembling the plumbing components needed to divert the greywater from the washing machine. Another group braved the crawlspace to lay long runs of PVC to the awaiting network of distribution hoses.

As the clouds cleared, the install neared completion. With team members anxiously monitoring outlets, the system was put to the test. After tensely waiting, excitement erupted around the mulch basins as greywater began to flow. In all, it took roughly 6 hours for a team of ten to integrate a standard washing machine into a greywater system capable of distributing water to several planting beds. With some plumbing supplies and a little effort this system now diverts as much as 50 gallons of water per washing machine load.

It’s becoming ever clearer that simple solutions like these are necessary to create a sustainable future for our modern lives. We came to this conclusion prior to our California adventure by merely observing the shocking circumstances surrounding our dwindling water resources, but what wasn’t entirely clear when our class set out on this excursion was just how easy and tangible environmental change can be. To our astonishment, we took home a very palpable understanding of how small projects like this are not only achievable for the common person, but also where the real hope for sustainability lies.

We are now all active in ongoing efforts to reduce our consumption by shortening showers, “letting it mellow,” and even planning greywater installs of our own. Getting a little dirt under our nails opened our eyes to the sources of waste around us, and equipped us to make the changes we need to manifest.

Sam Seeger and Luke Brummer, students in Simran Sethi’s journalism class at the University of Kansas are learning to communicate complex issues via social networking. This is part of a series of posts from a class exploring the intersection of social media and social justice and using water and design as its primary lenses of inquiry.

Follow the conversation on twitter, #metropolisH2O.

The video above was produced for Metropolis by students in Simran Sethi‘s University of Kansas course exploring social media, resource scarcity, and enviromental justice. Music by Amikaeyla Gaston-Callender, featuring Prashant Pandey’s tHE eQUILIBRIUM

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