On this subject, lawmakers reached near unanimity: If the owners of Montana homes, businesses and apartment buildings want to help conserve water, they should be free to do so.
In that spirit they passed House Bill 285, which allows installation of gray water re-use systems in businesses and multi-family dwellings. A 2007 law made the systems legal for single-family homes.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Michelle Reinhart, D-Missoula, and only one fellow lawmaker voted against it — Rep. Ron Stoker, R-Darby. Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed it into law March 25.
Gray water systems are designed to capture and reuse the flow from bathroom sinks, showers, tubs and clothes washing machines. The water can be minimally treated and then used to flush toilets or irrigate landscaping — just not fruit and vegetable gardens.
Water from toilets, kitchen sinks and dishwashers continues to flow into sewer or septic systems as it does now.
According to the fiscal note on the Legislature's Web site, this bill will have no impact on taxpayers since the Department of Environmental Quality has already drafted rules and design guidelines for gray water re-use systems in all these applications. Existing staff would review systems proposed for new subdivisions in conjunction with review of all other wastewater system components.
A Helena-based group called Student Advocates for Valuing the Environment Foundation was a key backer of both this bill and the one in 2007. S.A.V.E. Foundation Director Matt Elsaesser called the passage "a tribute to the legislative process that has brought forth a great opportunity to conserve water." By some estimates, gray water accounts for between 50 and 80 percent of household wastewater. Re-using it, especially during Montana's increasingly hot, dry summers when rivers and reservoirs can get dangerously low, makes good sense.
Systems are especially ideal for new construction since they require unusual plumbing configurations, but retrofits are possible, especially in cases where pipes run through open, unfinished basements.
Chris Borton of Sage Mountain Center, between Butte and Whitehall, has first-hand experience with gray water reuse for land- scaping. The sustainable living education and demonstration facility also captures rainwater for later reuse.
"Anytime you can collect and re-channel water, it's that much less you have to pump out of the aquifer or that much less you have to pay for if you're on a meter," Borton said.
Rainwater reuse can be as simple as posi-tioning a 55-gallon drum under a gutter, he said. At Sage Mountain, all their downspouts are strategically placed to water landscaping.
As Montana's water resources become increasingly stretched, conservation will grow in importance as a coping strategy. In passing this bill, lawmakers have demonstrated that they're thinking ahead to those days and making sure the law won't get in the way of the right thing to do.