SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – 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 in the 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.
So far $202,340 in fines have been suspended for Water School graduates. And there's a waiting list for weeks to come.
While Santa Cruz has cut back 25 percent of its water use, Gov. Jerry Brown's request in January that everyone cut back 20 percent had the opposite effect statewide. Some districts – Southern California coastal communities and the far northeastern slice of the state – actually used more, prompting a 1 percent increase in water use statewide. So starting in August, authorities are imposing statewide rationing with fines of up to $500 a day for residents who waste water on lawns, landscaping and washing cars. Water cops are being hired and fines imposed.
Water Education Foundation Deputy Director Sue McClurg said they haven't heard about schooling repeat offenders, "but if it can educate customers on water conservation, it could be helpful."
"Most people just turn on the tap and don't think about where their water comes from," she said. "The more people learn about their source of drinking water, the more they learn about its management."
University of California, Davis, professor Jay Lund, who directs the Center for Watershed Sciences, laughed when he heard about Santa Cruz's approach, but he said it might catch on.
"It makes sense, like traffic school," he said. "It has an educational purpose, but also a punishment aspect to it."