Design Strategies - Water

Strategies and solutions for water conservation, planning and management

Water conservation has become a critical part of water planning and management. Challenges such as climate change, drought, and pollution jeopardize the security of urban communities nationwide, underscoring the importance of accessing clean water. The Oakland EcoBlock project is committed to tackling the water challenges of today, highlighting innovative strategies and crafting creative solutions that will reshape the ways in which we use, conserve, and think about water in the years to come. 

a 3D drawing showing rainwater systems


Block-scale management of rainwater systems. (work completed by Christine Scott Thomson, Senior Associate at Page/, as part of Phase I* of the Oakland EcoBlock (*project phase completed while at another firm, SOM)) 

Key elements of the EcoBlock water plan include:​

Laundry-to-Landscape Greywater Irrigation System​

A laundry-to-landscape greywater system captures greywater from the discharge hose of your washing machine, enabling you to reuse the water without altering the existing plumbing in your home. In this system, the hose leaving the washing machine is attached to a valve that allows for easy switching between the greywater system and the sewer. It is important to be able to switch to the sewer anytime you don’t want to send the water outside, for example if you’re using bleach, which could harm plants, or if the soil is saturated during the rainy season. The greywater is distributed through a 1-inch irrigation line with outlets directing water to specific plants (see figure below). This system is low-cost, easy to install, and very flexible if you need to make future changes to your home or landscaping.


diagram of a laundry-to-landscape system


Laundry-to-landscape overview. Source: Clean Water Components and SF Water.

Benefits of Greywater

Reusing greywater is an important component of sustainable water practices. There are many benefits of using greywater instead of potable drinking water for irrigation.

Reusing greywater can:

  • Decrease potable water use by 16 to 40 percent, depending on the site (Cohen 2009).
  • Decrease water and wastewater utility bills.
  • Reduce the energy (approximately 2 watt-hours per gallon of water) and chemicals needed to treat wastewater.

Another benefit of using greywater is that it connects us to our water supply, helping us understand where our water comes from and where it goes. Becoming conscious of our water supply encourages healthier product choices and engagement with our landscape. By reusing household greywater, we preserve water resources for other living things. In concert with water-wise landscaping, rainwater harvesting, and conservation, using greywater as a resource helps reduce dependency on imported water and protects watersheds.

Plant friendly products should be used with your greywater system. In general, products should be biodegradable and non-toxic. In addition, they should be free of salt (sodium) and boron (borax), two common ingredients that are non-toxic to people but are harmful to plants and/or the soil. Chlorine bleach is also harmful to plants and should be diverted with any other harmful products to the sewer or septic by switching the 3-way valve. Read article for recommendations on specific brands of plant-friendly soap.

Residents may also consider using filtering devices that collect microfibers that come off of clothing during wash cycles to keep microfibers from entering the greywater system. Devices range from fine mesh laundry bags to small coiled balls that can be placed in the washing machine.

Block Greening, Stormwater Treatment, and Runoff Reduction

The team is considering several strategies within landscaping strips between the curb and sidewalk to reduce pavement, increase native planting and street trees, and manage stormwater runoff from the street and sidewalk. “Urban greening” by removing unnecessary pavement and adding trees can provide multiple benefits to the block—including aesthetic and health benefits, as well as cooling via evaporation from vegetation and shading of pavement surfaces that absorb and radiate heat (commonly known as the “urban heat island effect”).

In some locations along the block, the curbs and landscaping strip may be able to be modified to allow stormwater runoff from the street to flow into the landscape strips. This strategy provides multiple benefits, including improving water quality by filtering urban runoff pollutants through vegetation and soil (also known as “biofiltration”), and slowing the rate of stormwater runoff.

The team also proposes a trash capture device within the existing catch basin at the end of the street to prevent trash from flowing into the creek.

Rain Gardens

a landscaped rain garden.
Rain gardens are an aesthetic way to mitigate stormwater runoff and flooding and create habitats for local wildlife.


The EcoBlock Water Team also plans to provide guidance to construct rain gardens at individual households’ properties. A rain garden is a depressed area planted with native shrubs, perennials, and flowers that collects rainwater runoff from roofs, driveways and walkways. Rain gardens are designed to collect and temporarily hold rainwater, allowing the water to soak into the soil. Rain gardens are effective in removing up to 90% of nutrients and chemicals and up to 80% of sediments from the rainwater runoff. Compared to a conventional lawn, rain gardens allow for 30% more water to soak into the ground.

In the design of a rain garden, typically six to twelve inches of soil is removed and altered with tillage, compost and sand to increase water infiltration. The type of alteration to the soil depends on the current soil type, so it is a good idea to obtain a soil test.

Rain gardens are generally constructed on the downside of a slope on your property and collect rainwater runoff from the lawn, roof and/or the driveway. Once water collects in the rain garden, infiltration may take up to 48 hours after a major rainfall. Rain gardens also incorporate native vegetation; therefore, no fertilizer is needed and after the first year, maintenance is usually minimal.

Use of rain barrels to collect rainwater and improve rain garden performance as well as for water supply will also be considered. 

Drought Tolerant and Native Planting

Designing for rainwater capture through native, drought-tolerant planting and efficient irrigation systems is an effective way to lower outdoor water use. Residents may consider replacing private property (lawns and yards)—which require substantial amounts of water and fertilizer—with “California-friendly” plants minimizes maintenance and irrigation, restores soil health, attracts local pollinators and wildlife, and enhances the aesthetic beauty of the natural landscape. 

Flowers in a swale, water percolating into permeable stone paving, an open umbrella, a cluster of native flowers, a mound of soil and compost, and crossed-out laundry detergent.

Residents should consider the following planting design fundamentals to cultivate beautiful and sustainable native landscapes:

  • Direct water from downspouts and impermeable surfaces, such as concrete walkways or driveways, to swales, the landscape, or other permeable areas to keep water on-site and benefit your plants.
  • Plant in the fall or during the rainy season to take advantage of the rainfall for establishing your plants and minimizing your irrigation needs.
  • Group plants with similar water, sun, and soil needs. If you plan to use your irrigation system, be sure that plants with the same water needs are in the same irrigation zones.
  • Space plants based on their mature size for growth. This will help prevent an “overgrown” look, and minimize water and maintenance needs.
  • Build healthy soils to support healthy plants. Avoid using synthetic fertilizers and chemicals. Allow leaf litter to stay in place to promote nutrient cycling.

Water-Efficient Appliances and Fixtures

Ensuring efficient water use is another key goal. We plan to install water-efficient appliances and fixtures (e.g. dishwashers, clothes washers, showerheads, toilets, bathroom & kitchen faucets) that meet, and often exceed, current industry standards. One metric is the WaterSense label, which follows the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s criteria for water-efficient performance and specifications and certifies products that save at least 20 percent more water than market competitors. Another certification is from the California Energy Commission (CEC), whose regulations ensure consumer products comply with energy and water conservation requirements at both the state and federal levels. 

Sources and Resources

EBMUD Water Efficiency Resources:

My Water Report Portal
EBMUD offers a free portal to help customers track and manage water use. Benefits include leak alerts, use notifications, step-by-step instructions for fixing leaks, and a downloadable record of your water use history.

Flowmeter Rebate
The Flowmeter Pilot Rebate Program gives customers information about their water use, potential leaks, and incidences of high water use. This program offers rebates for a newer set of smart flowmeters that can monitor usage in near real-time and is open to all EBMUD customers. Learn about other EBMUD rebates and incentives.

WaterSmart Home Survey Kit
Illustrated step-by-step instructions take you through your home and landscape to locate leaks, measure flow rates, and evaluate water use.
The kit includes a 10-page pamphlet with a detachable worksheet, dye tablets for finding toilet leaks, and a flow-meter bag for measuring faucet and showerhead flows. Return a completed self-mailing worksheet to EBMUD and receive free water-saving devices such as showerheads, faucet aerators, or a low-flow garden hose nozzle.

Groundwater Foundation
The Groundwater Foundation is a non-profit organization that provides education and community-based action programs involving individuals, communities, and public and private entities in groundwater conservation and protection. The Foundation website covers current issues impacting groundwater and provides resources for groundwater resource management.

California Native Plant Society
The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) is an environmental non-profit organization that seeks to conserve California native plants and their natural habitats and increase understanding, appreciation, and horticultural use of native plants. The CNPS website provides resources for selecting native, drought-tolerant plants, gardening and plant installation, and long-term maintenance.

San Francisco Graywater Design Manual for Outdoor Irrigation
A technical resource for homeowners and professionals who want to install greywater systems for outdoor irrigation in San Francisco, though much of it applies to other cities as well. This manual provides a detailed step-by-step process for designing and installing laundry-to-landscape systems, as well as the basic steps for designing and installing branched drain and pumped systems. The manual provides an overview of the benefits of greywater systems, when and where to install these different systems, permitting requirements (SF-specific), what products to use, and operation and maintenance requirements.

Greywater Action
A website with detailed information about greywater reuse, among other household water systems. Information is available in Spanish and Chinese.

Video: “How to Install a Graywater Irrigation System” (This Old House):

Retrofits 101: Know Your Rain Gardens infographic
Retrofits 101: Rain Gardens (PDF)
Retrofits 101: Know Your Laundry-to-Landscape infographic
Retrofits 101: Laundry-to-Landsape (PDF)
Fixtures 101: Know Your Low-Flow Faucets infographic
Fixtures 101: Low-Flow Faucets (PDF)
Fixtures 101: Know Your Low-Flow Showerheads infographic
Fixtures 101: Low-Flow Showerheads (PDF)
Fixtures 101: Know Your Efficient Toilets infographic
Fixtures 101: Efficient Toilets (PDF)
Appliances 101: Know Your Dishwashers infographic
Appliances 101: Dishwashers (PDF)
Water Distribution 101: Know Your Smart Water Meters infographic
Water Distribution 101 Smart Water Meters (PDF)

Explore other EcoBlock disciplines: