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California drought scofflaws go to Water School to waive stiff penalties

A water conservation sign is shown displayed outside of City Hall in Santa Cruz, Calif., Tuesday, July 29, 2014. 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 it relies almost exclusively on storm runoff into a river, some creeks and an aging reservoir. (AP Photo/Bay Area News Group, Patrick Tehan)

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By The Associated Press
Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 6:30 p.m.

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — It's sort of like traffic school.

But these offenders didn't speed down a highway or run a red light. There are no DUIs here. Instead the people who find themselves in this room overindulged their veggie patch or ignored a dripping faucet, and now every Monday night in this drought-stricken beach town, dozens 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, is up before dawn patrolling for overwatered lawns and teaches the 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. Tacked onto her $210 water bill was a $775 fine last month. She says 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 and 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.

This year when winter storms did not blow in and the forecast was grim, most communities took the “ask nicely,” approach, suggesting residents cut water use by 20 percent.

Santa Cruz, a coastal town about 60 miles south of San Francisco, could not 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,” said Santa Cruz Water Director Rosemary Menard. “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 hotline was started to tattle on water wasters, and mandatory household limits, 249 gallons per day for a family of four, were set. 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.

Some were not so ardent.

In June, the first month of rationing rules, 1,635 Santa Cruz household accounts were fined $341,000. In July, 2,121 accounts had penalties applied, totaling $175,725.

So far, $202,340 in fines have been suspended for Water School graduates. The class has a weeks-long waiting list.

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