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Climate and Environment

The Drought Is Limiting Outdoor Irrigation, But There’s An Alternative Coming From Faucets and Showers

A woman wearing a red sweater and black pants squats beside a large rain barrel outdoors, turning the faucet so the water falls into a red bucket.
Leimert Park resident Lynetta McElroy uses gray water from her home and rain water captured in a barrel to irrigate her plants and food garden outside.
(Erin Stone
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This summer, millions of southern Californians won’t be able to use drinkable water for outdoor irrigation more than once a week. (In L.A. it’ll be twice-a-week.) But one way to avoid that? Irrigate with lightly-used water that would otherwise go down your kitchen and bathroom sinks, or shower drains.

This is officially called gray water recycling and L.A. resident Lynetta McElroy has become an expert in the practice.

At her home in Leimert Park, McElroy has made it a habit to recycle lightly-used water from the shower and the kitchen faucet by capturing it in a pail before it goes down the drain. Then, she pours that water into a two-gallon bucket. When that gets full, she pours it into a 5-gallon bucket and uses the water to irrigate the plants and garden in her yard.

“When we wash our vegetables, we don't let that water just go down the drain,” McElroy said. “We catch that water.”

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She also saves in the shower by catching the water in a bucket while it heats up. She makes sure to put a lid on any containers holding water to keep mosquitoes away. Her family treats water as a valuable resource that should never be wasted — even if it’s a little bit of a hassle not to.

“I taught my children that my definition of integrity is doing the right thing when we don't feel like it and no one's looking,” McElroy said. “When I was growing up, we just didn't waste, we just did not buy what we did not need. Going out to dinner was a treat.”

Gray water recycling is one way you can try to keep your yard a little greener amid strict new drought restrictions. You can even go as far as installing a full gray water recycling system with pipes and all at your home, but the practice concerns some environmentalists and sanitation officials. (Here’s the L.A. Department of Water and Power’s info on residential gray water systems).

Gray water recycling has to be done right or it can be really bad for the environment, McElroy said. That's why she uses plant-friendly soaps to avoid hurting the soil, the food she grows or even city water systems. (Here’s a list of some environmentally-friendly products.)

McElroy took a free class with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to learn the ropes of gray water recycling. L.A.-based company Greywater Corps also offers classes. LADWP also offers a variety of free classes on water conservation and your local water agency may have others.

For McElroy, gray water recycling is just a part of her lifestyle — she reuses it year round, not just when there’s drought. Part of that commitment is rooted in past injustice she's experienced.

“When I was in elementary school, we lived in south central Los Angeles and we could not use the water fountains because of the lead,” McElroy said. “To attend an elementary school where you couldn't drink from the water fountains to now … I guess I value water even more. I just don't want to waste it.”

We could all value water more, McElroy said — and one way to show our appreciation, she said, is to do our part to conserve.

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