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Green turns to gray 

Fire station's water deemed unfit for community garden

In August 2013, Fire Station 21 opened with fanfare. The building, at 7320 Dublin Blvd., was billed as the city's premier eco-project, energy-efficient with a graywater system designed to use treated laundry and shower water for a community garden.

But the garden hasn't been built, and the Colorado Springs Fire Department has dropped the idea of feeding vegetables with second-hand water. Instead, the station's used water will irrigate, via drip system, the station's landscaping, and newly installed fresh-water spigots will provide water for gardens yet to be built.

"After consultation with the director of Pikes Peak [Urban] Gardens, and El Paso County Health Department," Deputy Fire Chief Ted Collas says in an email, "we concluded that greywater cannot be utilized for consumable agriculture."

PPUG director Larry Stebbins oversees five gardens across the city, and acknowledges telling the department that "we would have to back off."

"Firefighters come back and wash up after a fire," he explains. "They're dealing with people in accidents. There's body fluids involved. That would go out in the graywater."

So where did the misunderstanding come from? Well, project architect Jim Fennell points out that graywater can be used to irrigate gardens if done with an underground drip system. He's spoken with the county Health Department several times, most recently in mid-November, to confirm as much.

That's true, Stebbins says, but other places have said "under no circumstances" should it be used on edible crops (although subterranean irrigation of orchards is common). And, Stebbins says, "I think we need to err on the side of caution."

The website greywateraction.org says water can be reused for gardening, including berry bushes, though it advises, "Greywater should irrigate the roots, not be sprayed or dumped onto the plant itself. Greywater is not safe to drink, and thus should not touch the part of a plant someone would eat."

Given the differences of opinion, Fire Capt. Steve Oswald says the city opted to "take a conservative approach" — using the graywater on landscape greenery only.

The good news is that since graywater will be used on-site, the U.S. Green Building Council still views it as a LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) project. In fact, says Fennell, it "is still scored platinum," the highest rating.

The station is heated and cooled using a "geo-exchange" system beneath the building that relies on the Earth's naturally stable temperature and solar-powered pumps. Brick walls absorb the sun's heat in winter, and shading cools the building in summer. The green features and graywater system are expected to reduce energy use by 42 percent and water use by 30 percent compared to a standard building.

Though the water issue caused talks to stall on a community garden at Station 21, Stebbins says he's happy to discuss moving forward now and predicts that plots will "fill up in a heartbeat," given there are 30 people on an urban-garden waiting list in the Old Farm area nearby.

Collas says the city hopes to build planter boxes by spring, and has installed four outdoor spigots, which are metered separately from the building, to allow gardeners to be billed for the water. Meantime, Oswald says the city is working on attaining the LEED label, which will take another 60 to 90 days.

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