Out of the wash 

The local nonprofit HomeWord says that reusing semi-dirty water—"gray water"—for irrigation at its Equinox and Solstice apartment complexes, on the corner of Broadway and Russell streets, will save 2,000 gallons of water a day in summer months.

"I think folks are starting to recognize that the way we've been doing things has been really wasteful," says HomeWord Director Andrea Davis.

Count Missoula Public Works Director Steve King among the converted. King witnessed HomeWord's and the Missoula Federal Credit Union's recent struggles to cut city red tape prior to installing gray-water filtration systems. Now he's initiated a discussion in city council chambers about ways to ease regulatory barriers to recycling water.

"We think that this is something that's representative of conservation," he says.

As it stands, property owners who want to irrigate plants with gray water from showers and washing machines, for example, must first get a permit from the city. King says that's a cumbersome requirement for owners who want to become better environmental stewards. So he's asking the city council to tweak the language in Missoula's sewer regulations, to make recycling water easier.

Missoula's potential regulatory change comes as communities across the West, faced with dwindling water resources, relax long-standing impediments to water recycling. In the last 20 years, California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico have removed such barriers. In 2007, the Montana legislature approved the use of gray water in single-family residences. In 2009, the legislature authorized its use in multi-family and commercial buildings.

These changes reflect a shift in the way citizens and decision-makers are thinking about water, King says. "In the western United States, water availability will be one of the limiting factors in the future for how and where communities grow. It is probably the most finite resource, and we are going to have to find more effective ways to deal with that."

Missoula's city council will hold a public hearing on gray-water permitting April 11.

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