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Santa Cruz Sends Its Water Hogs to Traffic School

That's one way to beat the drought.

The San Lorenzo River

The San Lorenzo River 


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Not long ago, Santa Cruz took a leaf from the traffic school industry and kicked off an innovative program for dealing with profligate tap-runners: water school. City homeowners who’ve been hit with fines can get a one-time exemption by spending two hours in class learning where their drinking water comes from, why the situation in Santa Cruz is particularly dire, and how to read their own meters or tell if their toilets are leaking. (Answer: Put food coloring in the tank.)

Santa Cruz needs to think especially creatively because it relies on rainfall alone for its water supply. Every drop used by locals to cook, drink, or bathe comes from the San Lorenzo River, the reservoir it feeds, or groundwater. That’s it. So when Governor Jerry Brown imposed state water rationing this April, Santa Cruz was way ahead of him. Back in April 2014, with its reservoir at historic lows, the city council declared a stage-three drought, allotting each household 1,000 cubic feet of water a month— about 7,500 gallons. Do the math, and that comes to approximately 250 gallons per day per home. Flush the toilet 10 times, and you’re out 15 gallons. Five minutes of water down the sink? Another 15. Four people in a house taking six-minute showers? A total of 50 gallons.

It adds up fast: Residents began getting hit with fines that sometimes ran to thousands of dollars. So the city implemented the water school program— which, as it turned out, did fill an educational need: Roughly three-quarters of its graduates arrived with no idea where their water comes from.

Santa Cruz doesn’t yet know if water school alumni are less likely to become repeat offenders, but it has more than met the goals of its rationing policy: The Loch Lomond reservoir has risen from an estimated low of 25 percent full to about 80 percent full. Thanks to some heavy December rain, water school was dismissed for the spring. But with little precipitation in the forecast, it’s a good bet that offenders will be back in detention before long.


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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