For many years, it has been the habit of many to toss grey water onto some nearby plants while camping, but could it be having more of an impact on the environment than we might think?
Whether or not it is legal to dump grey water on the ground is often decided by the state or campground you’re camping in. For example, Arizona technically allows the dumping of wash water on some BLM land while Montana disallows the dumping of any grey water. The definition of grey water itself varies from location to location.
The topic of grey water is one that is much more complicated than we might think. Not to mention it’s extremely important to know about if you’re a frequent camper! Continue on to learn what you need to know about how to handle grey water.
The Impact of Grey Water Dumping
It’s just water, right? That’s often what we think when we’re about to dump out a bucket of dishwater just outside our campsite. Many of us have done it from time to time, without thinking about the effects that water can have on the environment.
Understanding what impacts grey water can have on the world around us is hugely important. When we gain this knowledge, we can handle that water accordingly. The hardest part about making a decision here is that there are only legal restrictions on grey water in certain states. Depending on where you are, dumping grey water may be considered acceptable. In some locations, grey water is treated just like black water.
What is Grey Water?
Defining grey water can be a “grey area” (ba-doom psh!), depending on who you ask.
Many people would say that grey water is any water that isn’t run through the toilet. As you might expect, toilet water is something entirely different, requiring very careful handling.
That said, more and more states and their campgrounds are beginning to classify water that comes into contact with food as essentially black water as well. This is largely because of the germs that come from food or the chemicals that are used in the water.
Considering the impact that your dishwater, in particular, can have on the environment, you might find yourself wondering what the best method for washing your dishes might be. Learn more about washing dishes while camping in our article on the subject here.
What Impacts Can Grey Water Have on the Environment?
We might not always think about the effects that grey water can have on the environment. It’s easy to think that water that has only come into contact with food, or our bodies, isn’t dirty enough to keep out of the environment.
What’s worth keeping in mind is that those aren’t the only things grey water comes into contact with. Soaps, cleaners, and foods that contain chemicals are all things that can affect the water itself.
This also tends to mean that when we dump grey water, we also end up dumping these chemicals as well as bits of food that contain chemicals themselves or have soaked up chemicals from products like soaps, shampoos, conditioners, face washes and anything else we might use in that water.
Effects On Soil
Grey water and the chemicals therein can have a number of different effects on the soil it comes into contact with. Depending on what those chemicals are and how many there are, a few different things can happen.
Some of the effects grey water can have on the soil include:
- The inability to absorb water as well due to the infiltration of substances like fats and oils.
- Dryness due to the introduction of phosphates or salts.
- Changes in the PH-level of the soil due to various chemicals.
When these kinds of effects take place, it can result in poor growth for vegetation in the area. Essentially, the chemicals can decrease the health levels of the soil, making it inhospitable to plant life.
Another issue grey water can cause is in connection to water sources like lakes, ponds, rivers and more. This is one reason why it’s generally considered a good idea to get away from the water if you’re going to be dumping any grey water.
When that grey water manages to reach natural water sources, it can result in something known as an algae bloom. This is basically an explosion of algal life that overtakes that area.
While this might not seem like a bad thing, it’s an effect that can really change the natural balance of the ecosystem. As a result, fish and other creatures living there can be killed. In fact, some algae blooms are extremely hazardous to humans and people have died because of ingestion while swimming in what they thought was harmless water. It’s best to prevent algae blooms so that the environment can keep things balanced in its own way.
Now that you know how grey water can impact the environment, you might want to learn about some other camping habits and activities that can also have an impact. Make sure to check out our article on ways camping negatively impacts the environment to learn more.
Is It Illegal to Dump Grey Water?
There are many states in which it is legal to dump grey water if you’ve taken the proper precautions. However, there are also other states that would prefer that grey water be treated like black water.
Before you go camping, you’ll want to take a look into what the rules are in your state. That way, you’ll be fully prepared to handle your grey water legally. Additionally, make sure that you take a look at the rules for any campground you plan to stay at as well. Different campgrounds may have different rules!
Federal BLM Rules
In many states, BLM land is federally owned, and generally has looser rules and regulations than states. In the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) found at 8365.1-1, it states that draining black water is prohibited:
It is unlawful to “Drain sewage or petroleum products or dump refuse or waste other than wash water from any trailer or other vehicle except in places or receptacles provided for that purpose”
Under this definition, however, grey water (wash water) is not strictly prohibited. The gotcha for this is that many states consider kitchen sink water or any water that comes in contact with food to be black water.
In summary, BLM land may say that it is okay to dump shower water, but your local state or park rules will override. In many, many cases, it is not legal or socially acceptable to dump grey water from an RV or other vehicle.
Grey Water Dumping Rules In Popular Camping States
Some places are considered a little more popular when it comes to camping destinations than others. Naturally, it’s worth remembering that the rules with regard to grey water dumping can vary pretty wildly depending on the state.
This includes the definition of what grey water is. For example, there are many states that don’t consider things like kitchen water to be grey water. Instead, it is lumped in with black water due to the types of chemicals and germs from our food that can be found within it.
The following are some of the general rules for some states where camping is a more popular activity. Keep in mind that even though these might be the general rules, you should still check out the regulations for any specific campground you’re planning to stay in.
Arizona considered kitchen sink water to be black water. As a result, it isn’t legal to dump into the environment. However, grey water made up of bathroom showers and sinks can be legally dumped on BLM land as long as it is not considered a nuisance or a hazard, or has a chance to enter an aquifer (if the ground water is deep enough). In this article, someone actually wrote to the BLM to find these answers.
The Colorado government treats kitchen sink water as black water and not as grey water–this definition holds for city grey-water use. The department of public health in Colorado (see section 3.8 in this link and sections 7 and 8) has rules for campgrounds and recreation areas that subtly defines dishwashing, bathing or any other liquid waste material as black water, and that it should be disposed as sewage. Grey water dumping in Colorado parks is not allowed–however the rules will likely revert to the above BLM rules on BLM land if no local laws are specified.
The rules in Idaho appear to be a bit more stringent than you might expect. Essentially, used water is all considered to be “wastewater”, except shower or bath water. As far as dumping RV grey water, I couldn’t find specific rules. I also couldn’t find any specific rules for dumping campground grey water. In this case, I would refer to the BLM rules above, and favor being courteous.
It is against Montana state law for RVs to dump grey water on the ground, and they consider kitchen sink water as black water. In the Missoula City-County health code inconsequential grey water dumping is allowed for campers (bathing water only).
Utah treats kitchen sink water as blackwater. While Utah permits the use of grey water, there are very specific restrictions such as grey water use requires a drip-irrigation setup, etc, similar to Idaho rules.
I couldn’t find rules for Utah parks in general, however, parks will have rules specific to that park
Many parks are nationally protected, and have very specific local rules. For example, the Capitol Reef campground rules have specific restrictions on grey water:
Water from dishwashing, bathing and solar showers must be collected and deposited in gray-water disposal sinks
Make sure and check your local park rules.
In California, again I was not able to find specific rules for RV grey water dumping–but the message is implied to only dump at water dump locations. Many of the parks in California have sensitive wildlife, or bears–bears accustomed to human food is a huge problem in California, so any dishwater can make that problem worse.
For wilderness camping, Yosemite does have rules for wash water:
Do all washing at least 100 feet from water. Do not put any soap in water (even biodegradable and natural soap pollutes).
Grey Water Vs. Black Water
There’s a reason that these two kinds of water are described using different colors. Grey water is typically considered to be safer than black water, but there’s plenty to know about both. Generally speaking, grey water is a whole lot safer than black water to put into the environment. However, you’ll still need to take precautions with grey water before re-introducing it to the environment.
What Is Black Water?
If you’re unfamiliar with what black water is, then it may not come as a surprise that black water is considered to be even less clean than grey water. In most cases, black water is the water that is run through the toilet. However, in many cases, it can also include kitchen water.
It may be obvious that black water isn’t something you want to be dumping out in nature. It contains a high number of germs and other disease-causing agents. The same isn’t always true about grey water, but the water that comes from the kitchen can contain a high number of germs as well.
How Are Grey and Black Water Different?
For this section, I’ll start with what would be considered the cleanest water to the dirtiest, generally speaking.
Grey water that is always considered grey water is the water that comes from the shower, laundry machines, and similar kinds of devices. This is water that doesn’t typically contain food in it. Idaho, however, considers laundry machines water to be black water.
Meanwhile, water from the kitchen sink, or that you’re using to wash dishes in while you’re camping, is sometimes considered grey water and sometimes considered sewage, or black water. This is because there are often large amounts of food in it as well as dish soap.
Both of these things can negatively impact the environment if the water isn’t treated before going back into nature.
Is Grey Water As Bad As Black Water?
This is a question that is definitely up for debate. There are some who will claim that some kinds of grey water can have just as many, if not more germs than black water. It’s likely that this doesn’t really apply to things like shower water or laundry water in most cases.
However, water that has come into contact with food may be able to develop a plethora of germs. Think about how many raw foods can come into contact with your sink or wherever else you might be washing dishes. We use these spaces to clean raw meats, eggs and more. Water coming into contact with that can pick up the germs those things carry.
This can make that water just about as bad as black water, which we typically already know to be a germ-filled substance.
Best Ways To Dispose Of Grey Water
Now that you know a bit about why dumping grey water onto the ground isn’t always allowed, you might be wondering what you should do with it. Luckily, you won’t have to worry about a lack of possibilities. From the simple task of filtering the water to storing it in a tank, there are a lot of options.
The following tips will cover what you should do with your grey water whether you’re staying at a campground or out in the wilderness.
Disposing Grey Water At Campgrounds
Grey water can be a little bit easier to handle when you’re staying at a campground because these places often let you know what the rules are for grey water dumping. Additionally, there are typically dumping stations that you can use to get the job done.
The following tips are key for handling your grey water at a campground.
Learn The Rules
Each campground you stay in might have slightly different rules about how they want you to handle grey water. You may find that some campgrounds just want you to dump it alongside any black water you’re getting rid of at specific stations.
At other campgrounds, there may be special grates every few campsites are so which are designed for dumping your grey water. Often these are used for cooking water, to keep it out of the environment itself. That said, you may still want to filter any debris out of the water first.
Campgrounds that are owned by the state may have different rules than those that are privately owned. Before you head out to a certain campsite, just make sure you’re familiar with the rules and ready to follow them. That way, things will be easier for everyone involved.
Look For a Water Disposal Station
Many campgrounds offer stations where you can empty out the black water tank on your RV. This is a standard for a wide number of places because it can be an annoyance at the very least to have to drive with a full black water tank.
Often, you can get rid of grey water here too, as it’s often considered not to be quite as dirty as black water. This might be more of a hassle than just dumping it out onto the ground, but it’s a lot safer for the world around you.
That said, grey water does tend to build up a lot more quickly than black water. It’s less likely that you’ll be able to get away with only dumping the grey water as you’re leaving the campground like you can with black water. A little later in this article, we’ll cover why you might want an extra tank for your grey water.
Separate Food From The Water
If the campground you stay in is one that allows grey water dumping, then there are still some steps worth taking for the sake of the environment and animal life around you.
The water itself may not cause too much of a problem, especially if it absorbs into the ground quickly. However, the food bits in the water stand a good chance of soaking up soap chemicals that were used in cleaning your dishes.
If animals come sniffing around your campsite looking for snacks, they may eat those food bits and end up sick. While we might clean our dishes with dish soap, we definitely don’t want to eat it. If we don’t want to eat it, it’s probably safe to say that it’s not going to be good for our furry friends to consume either.
You might also just prefer to keep animals away from your site. Due to the food involved in some kinds of grey water, they might be attracted to the smell, whether there’s still food in it or not. For additional tips on keeping animals away from your campsite, check out our article here.
If you’re lacking a filter, then you may need a simple way to get the pieces of food away from the water. If you have a plastic bag on hand, this isn’t a problem. All you need to do are poke a few very small holes into that bag and pour your grey water into it. The water will travel through, leaving the debris in the bag for you to handle appropriately.
Use a Tank
Because grey water can build up so quickly, it can be a wise choice to have a tank to store it in. If you typically camp in a tent, then you can use a tank, bucket or other containers without too much trouble. However, the situation can be a little more tricky for those who stay in RVs.
Most RVs do have a tank for grey water, but that tank might not be big enough if you have a family washing dishes and showering in your RV every day.
Those who camp in RVs often just want to park their RV in the site and avoid moving it until it’s time to leave. It can take a lot of work to move things out of the way, bring in the awning and roll out just to empty a tank. Not to mention, getting back into the parking space can take a whole lot of effort.
A great way to avoid that process is to look into a grey water tank known as the Blue Boy. These are tanks that come with attached wheels. They make it easy to empty out your tanks and take the water to the dumping station without ever having to move your RV.
Disposing Grey Water While Camping In The Wilderness
There are some who believe that it’s not really camping unless you’re out in the woods without bathrooms, showers or other people. However, handling grey water isn’t as straightforward in these areas.
In this next section, we’ll take a look at what to do with your grey water when there are aren’t listed rules for you to follow.
When you’re camping out in the wilderness outside of a campground, the rules can be a little bit different. In short, there really aren’t any listed rules. However, there are still state rules and the laws of etiquette that you should follow when dealing with your grey water.
As previously mentioned, filtering out your grey water is a smart choice. Even if you don’t have park rangers in a campground telling you to do so, those soap-filled pieces of food can still be a problem for animals in the area. It’s better to be safe than sorry and pack up the remaining food to add to a compost bin or place in the trash.
Additionally, if you can try to use biodegradable soaps, both for your dishes and yourself, it’s going to be better for the environment overall. You’ll still need to be careful about where you dump that water, but it’s usually going to be a much safer choice than regular dish soaps.
Finally, keep your grey water away from natural water sources. This is where it can have the greatest negative effects. Instead, try to pour it out somewhere the water will be absorbed quickly. That way, you can avoid any lingering smell as well as the grey water ending up in a nearby stream or pond.