RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A big problem here in California is a lack of water because of years of severe drought. In much of southern California watering your lawn or washing your car are already restricted, and last week the federal government issued a new directive that could cut water delivery to California farmers for irrigation and to residents by seven percent.

Still, some believe the state as a whole is missing out on one key conservation method already available. Nancy Farghalli reports.

NANCY FARGHALLI: Susan Carpenter breaks California state plumbing code three times a week. Her accomplice is her washing machine.

(Soundbite of knob turning and water running)

Usually rinse water from the washer goes to the sewer, but what if you could recycle that liquid, use it to say water plants? That's what Carpenter does at her home in southern California.

Ms. SUSAN CARPENTER: The washing machine is just filling up with water and then it will go over to its normal process of washing the clothes. And after about eight minutes you'll start hearing it spin and that's when we'll run outside and we'll take a look at it kind of spurting through the tubes.

FARGHALLI: The it is gray water, and yeah, it looks like its name, a bit gray, a bit cloudy. After all, it's the wastewater from bathtubs, sinks and washers.

(Soundbite of washing machine)

FARGHALLI: That water you hear lapping up her dirty clothes will soon be lapped up by her passion fruit trees. And no, her fruit won't taste like Tide. Carpenter uses a special type of detergent to clean her clothes. It doesn't contain salt or boron, compounds that dehydrate plants.

Ms. CARPENTER: I spent about $350 on my system. What I've saved in terms of water is about 100 gallons a week.

FARGHALLI: So how does her system work? She's hooked up a valve that drains the water outside to a garden. Roughly one million residents in California use a similar type of gray water contraption. And some of them had been trained by Laura Allen. She's the co-founder of Graywater Guerrillas in Oakland.

Ms. LAURA ALLEN (Graywater Guerrillas, Oakland, California): Currently the codes are very restrictive and basically make sustainability illegal, and so the kinds of systems we do, safe, simple, economical, like, low cost systems, they're accessible to most people and…

FARGHALLI: In California the code says a legal gray water system needs to be put nine inches under the ground. Those get-ups can cost up to $5000. Here in Los Angeles, there are fewer than ten residential permits. Gray water advocates want California to follow Arizona's model. That state is the leading example of permeate free systems in the country. There, a resident can use gray water as long as they follow a set of guidelines to ensure safety and no cross contamination. Again, Laura Allen:

Ms. ALLEN: That really frees up homeowners to be able to know they're doing the right thing.

FARGHALLI: But what are the right guidelines for gray water? Enter Colorado State assistant professor Sybil Sharvelle. She's working on the five year study that looks at the effect of gray water on soil quality and plant growth. She gets a lot of people looking for early answers.

Ms. SYBIL SHARVELLE (Colorado State Assistant Professor): But most of the calls that I get are actually not just wanting a hint. People are really applying pressure to get results and to have us publicize results that we have.

FARGHALLI: Sorry to say the results won't come out until 2011. But lawmakers in California aren't waiting. State Senator Alan Lowenthal says California's department of Housing and Community Development is trying to come up with new rules.

Senator ALAN LOWENTHAL (California State Senate): The emphasis is to - as long as it's safe to try to make sure that we can begin to use gray water as a conservation tool in California. And that's really where we're moving.

FARGHALLI: Speaking of moving, let's go outside to Susan Carpenter's garden, and those passion fruit trees. They are leafy, tall, and about to drink from the washer. The spin cycle has started, and the soapy water has traveled from the washer through a pipe and now is shooting out of a black tube outside.

(Soundbite of water shooting out of tube)

Ms. CARPENTER: In a weird way it feels kind of like cannibalism, but it's not. I mean it's like whatever of you is left that comes out through here, it all gets eaten up by these microorganisms.

FARGHALLI: Sounds lovely. But that could be the sign of what's to come as Californians and others in the West learn to grapple with new ways to use less water.

Nancy Farghalli, NPR News.

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