SANTA CRUZ — Some overindulged their zucchini patch. Others didn't bother with that dripping kitchen sink. But now every Monday night in this drought-stricken beach town, dozens of residents who violated their strict rations take a seat at Water School, hoping to get hundreds of thousands of dollars in distressing penalties waived.
Nik Martinelli, a Santa Cruz water-conservation specialist who is up before dawn patrolling for overwatered lawns, launched a recent lesson.
"We all know why you're here. You all went over your allotment and got a big penalty," he said.
Margaret Hughes nodded grimly. Her $210 water bill came with a $775 fine last month. She drove from her home four hours north of town to face the scolding, even though she had no idea the toilet in a vacant house she inherited had been leaking.
Two hours later, everyone was ready to ace their Water School quiz, identifying the community's sparse water sources, listing ways to conserve water, describing how to use their water meters to check for leaks.
"They're turning this into something positive," said Hughes, adding that she might take advantage of a $150 rip-out-your-lawn rebate she learned about.
California is in the third year of the state's worst drought in recent history. Farmland is going fallow. Lakes are turning to mud. Golf courses, cemeteries and parks are browning.
Earlier this year when winter storms didn't blow in and the forecast was grim, most communities took the "ask nicely," approach, suggesting residents cut water use by 20 percent.
But Santa Cruz, a coastal town about 60 miles south of San Francisco, couldn't afford to wait.
Unlike most cities that have either groundwater, a connection to state water canals, or vast reservoirs, Santa Cruz is among those worst hit by the drought because what makes it special — the town is surrounded by ocean and mountains — also means it relies almost exclusively on storm runoff into a river, creeks and an aging reservoir.
"We're completely dependent on Mother Nature, so we're vulnerable" Santa Cruz Water Director Rosemary Menard said. "There really is no carrot in the situation that we're facing. We had to ration."
The city cracked down in May, deploying "drought busters," whom locals call "water cops," to warn — and then penalize — anyone openly watering between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., washing down pavement or refilling a spa. A logo, "Surf City Saves," was launched, and a hotline to tattle on water wasters and mandatory household limits, allowing just 249 gallons per day for a family of four, were set. A typical dishwasher load is 20 gallons, a load of laundry can be 25 gallons, a toilet flush can be 3 gallons. It adds up. Nationally, a family of four averages 400 gallons a day.
Most Santa Cruz residents, 94 percent of them, cut back as required, some with zeal.
Energy consultant Joel Kauffman has his household of three adults and a toddler using just over 100 gallons a day.
"We don't use the shower as a place to hang out. That's for the living room or the beach," Kauffman said.
Kauffman has installed low-flow toilets and shower heads. They don't always flush urine, they water their fruit trees with laundry runoff and a shower bucket gets dumped in the toilet tank or in the garden.
Some were not so ardent.
In June, the first month of rationing rules, 1,635 Santa Cruz household accounts faced $341,000 in fines. In July, 2,121 accounts had penalties applied, totaling $175,725.