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Residents using bath water to feed flowers

LILBURN - In the midst of a 100-year drought, Ann Eldredge says her Japanese Maple tree has never been prettier.

The lush, green shrubbery around her Lilburn home thrives alongside azaleas, lantana, pansies, hydrangeas, rose bushes and dogwoods.

The secret is in the bath water, said Lee Eldredge, Ann's husband.

As metro-area lakes dry up, local residents are finding ways to conserve every precious drop of water. Saved bath water can amount to about 20 gallons per person per day, but there is a gray area as to the legality of using it to water plants.

The laws against using gray water for irrigation are outdated and legislators should consider changing them, said Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn.

When summer temperatures climbed above the 100 degree mark, Lee Eldredge collected drips from the home's air conditioning and dehumidifying units to save his plants, an accumulated seven gallons per day. He installed two rain barrels to gather rain water from gutter downspouts.

With cooler fall weather and little rain in sight, Lee Eldredge daily dips saved bath water into a five gallon bucket and carries each bucketful to the yard. The process is

time-consuming, but it's saved the landscaping.

"I let the lawn go. It will come back," Eldredge said. "I'm trying to save the flowers and bushes. They are expensive. I do a few one day and a few the next. It is keeping them alive."

A few houses away, Bill York, 81, does the same thing, as well as using bath water to flush the toilet and fill the washing machine.

The soapy water won't hurt plants and shrubs, but don't use it on food plots, said Kathy Parent, agriculture program assistant for the Gwinnett County Cooperative Extension.

"It is considered gray water, and that can contain bacteria, especially the shower or bath water," Parent said.

There is, however, a fine line concerning the legality of sending gray water to the lawn, rather than the septic tank or sewer system, she said.

For decades, some homeowners routed their bath, dish and washing machine water to bypass the septic tank and flow into the yard. That practice is illegal and punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and 60 days in jail, said Vernon Goins, spokesman for the Gwinnett County Health Department.

The practice of carrying bucketsfull of bath and dish water to the flower garden might be a different situation, said Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the state Environmental Protection Division.

"It is OK to collect bath water in small amounts to water, but they must check with their local government to make sure they are in compliance with codes," Chamber said. "It will not pollute in small amounts."

Prior to 1990, soap and laundry washing powders contained phosphorus, Goins said, a natural mineral that is a main ingredient in fertilizer. That year, laws were passed that prohibit the sale of soap containing phosphorus in Atlanta's 28-county area and most of North Georgia, Goins said.

"The law was never changed," Goins said. "It used to be that septic regulations could be adapted to local circumstances. In 1998, the legislature took that adaptability away from local boards of health."

Treated wastewater that's returned to the lakes and streams tends to be high in phosphorus, England said.

"Lake Lanier has had a phosphorus problem for several years, to the point that some people say phosphorus should be deleted from fertilizer," England said. "The law doesn't make sense. That would be something we should look at as a conservation measure. You're not talking about that much water anyway."

The use of gray water for irrigation is a national question. The California-based Greywater Guerrillas, whose editors wrote, "Dam Nation: Dispatches From the Water Underground," is one of the most vocal organizations working to update those laws.

The first step in changing Georgia's regulations can be taking by the individual.

"Call your local representative," England said.