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.