Gray water’s anatomy


During its last session, the Montana legislature legalized a substance powerful enough to unite ranchers and hippies: dirty water.

Household systems that reuse gray water—wastewater that’s never seen a toilet—have captured the attention of ecology-minded urbanites, but Montana farmers have double-dipped for decades. A bill to sanction gray water recapture and use, sponsored by Missoula Representative Michelle Reinhart, passed the divided body as lawmakers seized the opportunity to legitimize a long-standing practice.

But before the bill’s ink even dries, the Graywater Guerrillas, a plumbing improvement outfit originally from Oakland, Calif., have revisions in mind.

Guerrilla Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, who guided an installation last Sunday at the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project (MUD), says retrofitting a house for gray water takes time and effort. “It’d be better if all new construction had the gray and black water separated,” he says, “And there are safe ways to reuse gray water in flood plains, which is still illegal.”

Gray water recycling can reduce household water consumption by up to 50 percent, Woelfle-Erskine says.

MUD’s new system—which filters bathwater through a constructed wetland to remove bacteria—ultimately irrigates an apple tree and rejuvenates the aquifer. But because Missoula has not yet established its own gray water guidelines, the setup may not comply with local building ordinances.

“I think it’s important to do projects that are cutting edge,” explains MUD board and site committee member Tim Skufca.

The installation signals a new direction for MUD, which is known for its tool library and new truck share program.

“My plan and hope is for MUD to return to its roots as a lived-in community,” says Skufca, “In order to generate enough gray water to warrant the system, somebody’s going to have to start taking a lot more showers here.”

As the troupe of fledgling Guerrillas worked into the evening, digging trenches and sump pits, burying wetland containers for maximum insulation, and wrangling pipes through floor joists, Skufca’s vision felt as inevitable as gray’s status as the new green.


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