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Santa Cruz Enforces California's Toughest Drought Restrictions

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Santa Cruz, California now faces the toughest water restrictions in all of that giant state. It's in response to California's four-year drought. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Linda Snook is a marine biologist and mother of three. Under her kitchen sink, she points to a complicated set of filters used to save water.

LINDA SNOOK: So this is our filtered water. And you just turn it on, and that gives you filtered water. And under here is the...

GONZALES: Like many Santa Cruz households, her family's been forced to go to extremes to meet their monthly allotment of 10 units, or about 50 gallons per person per day. That means shorter showers, a car that hasn't been washed in months, a garden that wasn't planted this summer and her system for capturing nearly every drop of water from the kitchen sink for reuse.

SNOOK: OK, so see the little hole we've drilled in the wall?

GONZALES: Yeah.

SNOOK: And the...

GONZALES: There's a hose coming out of the wall from underneath their sink, the hose leads outside to a hot tub. This is Santa Cruz; of course there's a hot tub. But this one is used for water storage.

SNOOK: You can see the level's getting a little low. But you just scoop it out, and then you have water for the plants or cleaning the pet cages or whatever.

GONZALES: All told, Linda Snook says her family cut their water usage by almost 50 percent, down to about 28 gallons per person per day. Across Santa Cruz, a coastal city of about 62,000 residents, evidence of this brutal drought is everywhere. Nearly every lawn is bone-dry brown, drought-tolerant vegetation is in vogue, and any hint of wasting water is just not cool in this environmentally hip college town.

SNOOK: Say there is water running out into the street, people sort of panic and say, where's that water coming from?

GONZALES: John Laird is California's secretary for Natural Resources and a former Santa Cruz mayor. He says so far people here are taking the drought seriously, partly because there's a system of stiff penalties for using more than your allotted share of water.

JOHN LAIRD: As a result, there's 93 percent compliance. The one thing that Santa Cruz does that gets laughs when I say it across the state, is the first time if you go over in water, you have the opportunity of going to water school and working it off.

GONZALES: That's right. Just like when you have parking tickets and need to work them off your record by attending traffic school, Santa Cruz has a water school. Water violators can only take the class to reduce their penalty once.

JUSTIN BURKE: We have three objectives tonight which include going over the regulations and restrictions that affected all of you in this room.

GONZALES: Justin Burke is a conservation expert for the local water district. With a PowerPoint, he explains that the city imports no water and depends entirely on the San Lorenzo River and nearby mountain streams.

BURKE: This is our primary water supply, as many of you have driven by the river lately and there's not a lot in it currently.

GONZALES: There are 29 people in the two-hour class. One man blames his high water bill on visiting relatives, another complains about rising water rates.

CAROLYN BLACKMAN: It reminded me a lot of drug rehab, in that the guys were saying it wasn't their fault and how come the hotels and restaurants get to get away with it.

GONZALES: Homeowner Carolyn Blackman took a water class several weeks ago. She didn't mind the class. It wiped more than $500 off of an $800 bill.

BLACKMAN: They got us all to settle down and really face the facts, that this is the worst drought that we've ever had in recorded history.

GONZALES: And if it continues, state water officials say Santa Cruz, with its mandatory rationing and water school, will be a model for other communities in California. Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales
Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.