An interview with Leigh Jerrard of Greywater Corps
An American family of four uses an average of 300 gallons per day. That’s a lot of water – 100,000 gallons per year! In Southern California where I reside, the problem is compounded because our water comes from distant sources – the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Colorado River – pumped hundreds of miles to get here, through the mountains and deserts. It also means a huge carbon footprint: moving and treating water accounts for 19% of all the electricity used in the state of California.
But now the problem is getting serious because there just isn’t enough water. The current mega-drought is the worst in over 1,200 years. Even when it rains, global warming disrupts our supply, which is based on year-round snow accumulation in the Sierras. There is less snow and it melts too soon.
But there is something you can do. Most homes use about half of their water indoors and the other half outdoors for irrigation. Indoor water use is primarily gray water: bathtubs, showers, laundry and sinks. This water does not have to go down the drain. It can be recovered and used a second time, for landscape irrigation. Greywater systems save water, protecting distant aquatic resources from where we draw water. They reduce the flow of sewage to the ocean, which is a whole other source of environmental problems. And they can nurture a beautiful, bountiful garden, growing healthy fruit and shade trees that sequester carbon and cool the neighborhood.
I caught up with Leigh Jerrard, director of Greywater Corps, to reflect on his journey and learn more about the problem.
Growing up in central Illinois, Leigh has always been fascinated with how things work, tools, and building processes and has spent a lot of time doing things like fixing junk cars, part-time jobs in construction, carpentry projects. As he pointed out, part of Midwestern values is that you can’t stand waste. “There is an element of economy which is linked to conservation, but it is more self-serving. It’s like that old saying about the slaughterhouse: the only thing they don’t use is the scream.
He spent a few summers working in the Youth Conservation Corps, living and working for two months in a state park near the Mississippi River. The work was grueling—fixing trails, clearing brush, planting trees—but the spirit of stewardship and camaraderie was exhilarating, as he remembered. “We took care of the land, worked like crazy, had a good time and got paid for it!”
In the 90s, he returned to school to study architecture. His first job was in Frank Gehry’s office, building scale models of strange, winding buildings. He loved it – but once he started managing multi-million projects, it became a lot less fun. He was simply struck by the excesses of “starchitecture” – buildings made of massive collapsed glass panels and titanium coatings.
From there he began his own architectural practice which emphasized the adaptation of existing structures rather than demolition; recycled, reused and repurposed materials; and carefully considered interrelationships between the built environment and the natural world.
After the birth of her son in 2005, Leigh became increasingly aware of our extraction and consumption of natural resources, especially water. As he thought, he gave her a bath, and when he unplugged the plug, he watched 50 gallons swirl down the drain, never to be seen again. “I was struck by this and started experimenting with ways to harvest that water, irrigating our thirsty plants,” he added. This was the genesis of Greywater Corps. Since then, Greywater Corps has installed approximately 800 systems in Southern California with a team of 12 installers (and they are looking to hire more employees).
I asked him what products to use when reusing water at home. There is a simple answer. “You wouldn’t want something that you didn’t want on your skin to go into your soil. If you’re worried about getting it in the dirt, you might not want it on your skin either. You’ll want to avoid products with high amounts of bleach, borax, parabens, or other harsh chemicals,” he said. Sodium is also a concern; Greywater Corps recommends liquid laundry detergent because powders can contain a lot of salt. Soaps also contain phosphorus and nitrogen, micronutrients that will help your garden thrive. As he pointed out, roses and citrus like gray water. Luckily, there are tons of organic and eco-friendly products out there that won’t harm the floor.
All gray water systems include a way to “turn it off” – a valve or switch you can operate that will divert gray water to the drain. This is handy for laundry loads with bleach or if your plants are simply getting too much water.
Gray water systems can also add value to your property. A typical house has a heavy environmental footprint: built with trees, metals, glass and concrete mined from the earth, it sits on its land and continues to consume resources – electricity, gas, groceries, water. But a house with a gray water system is a house that gives back to the earth, nourishes the soil and the garden.
Greywater Corps favors low-tech, low-maintenance systems that avoid filtration, storage tanks, and sterilization. Their systems rely on natural processes: gravity flows, beneficial microbes to break down impurities, and mulch beds of wood chips to percolate and spread gray water. These systems require very little maintenance. They will work quietly in the background for decades returning water to earth. They can be installed in both new construction and existing homes.
Although it takes decades to recoup the cost of a gray water system, that time frame is getting shorter as water rates rise. But the real value is in the landscape and the guarantee of an abundant source of water to irrigate it, even in times of drought or irrigation restrictions. Greywater provides a form of drought insurance for your beautiful garden.
I finally asked him if he hoped for a world where every home is automatically equipped with systems like theirs, as access to water becomes an increasingly important issue. He exclaimed, “Absolutely – plants don’t need drinking water! They’re great for lightly used gray water, and as the water gets scarcer, it doesn’t make sense to just let it go down the drain.
He also pointed to the fact that growyater had been illegal for many years, but that is changing. In 2010, the California Plumbing Code introduced a new chapter devoted to gray water. New homes in Los Angeles must run separate drain lines for gray and black water, making them “grey water ready.” Greywater systems provide a path to abundance, shade, habitat restoration, lush greenery, and aquifer replenishment.