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Staff, Environmental Board clash over gray water pilot program

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Plans to implement a modest gray water pilot program in the city met with unexpected controversy at the Environmental Board last week.


The Graywater External Stakeholders Group presented its plans for a pilot program to the board. The group, which was formed almost a year ago at the behest of Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley, proposed that 50 residents test using water from laundry, sinks, and showers to irrigate their yards. Environmentalist Lauren Ross, who is a member of the group, said they had “very simple goals” for a “very simple program.”


The board voted 5-0 to endorse the pilot program. Board Members Robin Gary and Jennifer Walker were absent. Though Austin Water Utility is working on ways to make gray water use easier for the entire city to use, those changes won’t happen until the spring, when the 2012 Uniform Plumbing Code goes before City Council.


Drema Gross, the division manager for water conservation at the Austin Water Utility told the board that, according to the proposal she had just seen, her division would be in charge of administering the pilot program. “We’re a little busy,” said Gross. “The only real difference in what the citizens’ proposal and what we believe will be going before Council in March or April is the addition of sinks and baths or showers.”


Gross said that, while she was supportive of the concept, by going through the normal process, the work would not fall on the shoulders of her staff and would have a wider reach. Ross explained that the inclusion of sink and shower water would mean an increase from 15 to 40 gallons of gray water a day.


Ross said that, as written now, the 2012 Uniform Plumbing Code does not make a distinction between laundry and other sources of water. She said it is now “something very close to what we are asking for in this pilot program. That is, essentially, the basis for our pilot program design.”


After an extended back and forth between the board, staff and the stakeholder group over the practicality and necessity of the program, Chair Mary Gay Maxwell grew frustrated. She said the details of any program could be worked out somewhere other than at the Environmental Board.


“Everybody seems to want to do this. We’re all kind of going in the same direction. But there’s some places where you don’t agree with one another, yet they seem to be relatively minor,” said Maxwell. “I don’t understand why we have this problem of not being able to bring everything together into one recommendation with all the groups standing side by side saying, ‘We think this is a great idea’.”


“I don’t understand the problem here,” said Maxwell. “I really think we need to move on and finish up with this. I’m sorry, but I don’t see the problem.”


Gross told the commission that launching the program would give her “very little marginal benefit” when staff and implementation time were weighed against the changes that were already forthcoming. “You can now, if someone really wants to, you can get the water from sinks and showers as well. There are a few more requirements.”


“I don’t need for someone to sign up for a pilot to get their data. I have access to that from water billing records,” said Gross. “It’s not that we object to the idea. I am just having a hard time, looking at my allocation of resources and seeing what the additional benefit is for trying to do something two months before the plumbing code is changed.”


Gross explained that upcoming changes to the plumbing code will eliminate current barriers to implementation of gray water systems for homesteads in Austin. While the graywater stakeholder group is concerned that the code still prevents the use of water from showers and sinks, Gross explained using that water will not be prohibited, but subject to “slightly different requirements.”


Chair of the Austin Sierra Club Conservation Committee Roy Waley pointed out that the fact that the state legislature was currently looking into the use of gray water might indicate that it was, as he termed it, “an idea that came a long time ago,” and expressed disappointment that Austin was behind the curve.


Board Member Mary Ann Neely said that she appreciated the conservation work the water utility was doing already, as well as their help in facilitating the program.


“I think it will be an additional burden, but hopefully it won’t be a great burden. I think it’s important to support a group like this. Fifty is a small amount of dedicated people… I think the outcome will be beneficial in the long run,” said Neely.

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