WHEN the sun blankets the California countryside in a leaf-drooping, heat-shimmering haze each summer, Robert Kourick indulges in a little legal illegality. He irrigates his garden and those of several of his clients with ``gray water.'' That's the water that drains from the shower, tub, and laundry - as distinct from waste water from the toilet, which is called ``black water.''
Strictly speaking, the approach isn't legal. But when drought plagues the countryside, gray-water gardening is permissible in most areas.
As a pamphlet put out by California's Department of Water Resources puts it: ``Local authorities can adopt modifications of the code to meet the needs of local conditions such as water shortages.'' Legally speaking, you might say it's pretty much of a gray area.
Because gray-water irrigation has worked so well for Mr. Kourick, a professional landscaper, he believes the rest of the country should follow suit in dry periods. To waste gray water - when crops are dying in the fields and barges are struggling to stay off the Mississippi mud - is nothing short of obscene, in his view. So to help, he's written a booklet on the subject, bringing together 12 years of experience gained in the school of hard knocks.
The booklet, ``Gray Water Use in the Landscape'' ($6 from Edible Publications, PO Box 1841, Santa Rosa, CA 95402), covers everything on the subject from the benefits and pitfalls of gray water use to the plumbing system involved to the methods of irrigating the landscape. Particularly valuable is an appendix listing soaps, detergents, and scouring powders least harmful to the garden. Some are even beneficial.
During the California drought of 1975 to 1977, landscapers by the score went out of business because of the ban on watering gardens. Kourick survived by becoming an expert in the use of gray water, prompted initially by clients who said, in effect: ``I've just paid out $1,000 for this landscaping. You better figure out a way to save it.''
The plumbing systems Kourick first installed proved effective, but they would have ``made Rube Goldberg gasp in admiration,'' he says. Now he hopes he will save many a homeowner from going through the same trial-and-error procedure.
Concern over possible pathogens in gray water prompts Kourick and others to suggest applying the gray water directly to the soil where possible. The soil's rich range of bacteria and fungi do a remarkably effective job of purifying the water and destroying unwanted pathogens.
One of the most effective ways of applying gray water to your garden soil is through buried drainage pipes. Kourick has installed several of these for clients alongside fruit trees and under perennial beds and annuals. They work effectively for all but the most shallow-rooted plants.
In brief, perforated drainage pipes are laid in shallow, gravel-filled trenches. Water draining from the home's pipes soaks into the surrounding soil and nourishes the plants growing nearby.
Kourick suggests that several of these ``mini leachfields'' be placed wherever you plan permanent plantings. This way, the shower water, etc., is fed through one section one day and another the next, so that it becomes highly unlikely that you will ever overwater one section.
The M.S. Caspe Company has come out with a product in response to America's present drought called the Garden Savior. On the surface it could be likened to a leap from the sublime to the ridiculous - a $19.95 device following those costing millions. But in its own way, it could be equally significant, says company president Mark Caspe. He points out that the item fits with the company motto: ``necessity is the mother of invention.''
The Garden Savior makes it a breeze to siphon water from the bathtub or sink so that it can be recycled in the garden. Perennially in the drier regions, and whenever drought settles in elsewhere, water restrictions are placed on gardens. This has led to the increasing use of gray water by homeowners. Some have even adapted their plumbing systems to this end, but many more save water the hard way - by baling it out from the tub by hand.
Every effort is commendable, Mr. Caspe reasons, but labor-intensive operations are bound to pall after a while. So he looked for a simple, non-motor-driven device to accomplish this.
What he came up with after a few tries was a gadget that links the faucet to the garden hose in the tub just long enough to get the siphon going. It primes the pump, you might say.
After this, the bath water will flow uphill (4 feet when tried out in my bathroom) as long as the far end of the hose is below the water line.
Without any further effort on your part, the bath water will flow in the hose up and over the edge of the tub, through the window, and down into the garden. And your roses, your mountain laurel, and maybe the apple tree will thank you for it.