In the News


Santa Cruz's Water School beats traffic school

By Scott Herhold, San Jose Mercury News, 8/13/14

At Water School in Santa Cruz, the drought police version of traffic school, the folks trying to work off a penalty for using too much water rarely demonstrate the seething cynicism of speeders and scofflaws.

There's a general shrug that -- yup -- they were caught by a fair but unassailable cop, their own water meter, for using too much in a dire situation. Four numbers on the left of the meter provided the evidence.

In one of California's worst droughts, the city of Santa Cruz has had to take extraordinary conservation measures. With 95 percent of its water coming from surface sources, the city depends heavily on runoff from the mountains. That's expected to be 14 percent of normal this year.

Hence, Water School for the people who go over their allotment, about 7,480 gallons of water per month for a family of four in a single-family home. Enough for toilets, cooking, showers and washing machines, but maybe not for an extensive yard.

Like any school penitents, the roughly 75 folks in Room 5 of the Louden Nelson Community Center on Monday night wanted to get done. Without much discussion, they declined a proffered break.


The instruction from city water conservation experts Clara Cartwright and Justin Burks was still an occasion for intelligent discussion, as much about the big picture as the leaky nozzle. I audited to get a picture of how it worked.

One guy in a baseball hat wanted to know -- legitimately, I thought -- why averaging wasn't allowed. If he went under his allotment one month, why couldn't he use it as a credit the next? Sorry, it would take too much staff time.

Another student inquired why the city wasn't going after hotels that lavishly watered their grounds and flowers. Burks also explained that the water cops were going after the low-hanging fruit first, which meant residents.

Could you still wash your car under the new rules? Well, yes, as long as you used a water-stopping nozzle on your hose. And yes, if you had to wash off bird dung from your sidewalk, you could get an exception. The city still values sanitation highly.

Lawns? The Water School instructors are not fans, though they fall short of dictatorial. Burks showed a slide that depicted colorful native plant arrangements, surrounded by mulch. It looked far nicer than the dried-out lawn he flashed on screen. "Sacrifice your lawn," said the wording on one slide.


I couldn't help but think that some of this was Big Brotherish: If you had a spring on your property, as some people do in the hills near UC Santa Cruz, Burks suggested calling the water department to let them know. Someone might turn you in for wasting water otherwise.

But the ideas for saving water were so common-sensical, and delivered with such evident goodwill, that it became contagious. Roughly 18 percent of the residential water use in California goes to clothes-washing machines. In some cases, you can cut your use in half by getting an energy-saving front-loading machine.

I made a note. Our washing machine, a top loader, is making strange noises. Even if I don't get the $100 rebate that Santa Cruz is offering for these machines, maybe this is the time -- strange for a columnist -- to be smart and silent.

Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or

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