Strict Water Rationing and Hefty Fines Yield Results in Santa Cruz

As California struggles to improve its water conservation efforts, many experts are looking to the City of Santa Cruz, where some of the strictest water rationing rules and penalties have yielded some big successes. 

Since May 1, families of 4 in Santa Cruz have been limited to a total of 10 units (7,480 gallons) of water per month for all uses. Those who exceed the limit can face penalties of up to $50 per unit, sending their monthly water bill over $500. Two “water cops” have even been employed to cite residents for water conservation violations. Those who step over the line can have their fines waived by attending a two-hour water conservation class, but the waiting list for attendance is one month long.

While most businesses are exempt from these rules, golf courses have still had to cut water usage by 50%. Lawn watering must be kept to a minimum and even the filling of swimming pools and hot tubs has been prohibited.

The new rationing rules were approved by the Santa Cruz City Council in April with the goal of reducing the city’s water usage by 25%. Since then, water usage has fallen by 26%. That’s a huge accomplishment, especially when one considers the results at the state-level. After Gov. Jerry Brown asked all Californians to cut water use 20 percent in January, for instance, usage actually increased by 1 percent.

"It is a large deterrent," said Toby Goddard, administrative services manager for the Santa Cruz Water Department, of the new rules in Santa Cruz. Felicia Marcus of the State Water Resources Board called the situation impressive. 

Many experts would like to see similar rules and penalties in other cities. 

“We need the urban areas to start acting like that,” said Tom Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. “Santa Cruz is the canary in California’s coal mine.”

Still, Santa Cruz is in somewhat of a unique position. While not everyone is happy with the new regulations, a longstanding history of environmental activism in Santa Cruz has left the city and water department with a relatively friendly audience for the new rules. In fact, water use is in the city is already at 96 gallons per capita per day, compared to an average of 196 for the state.

Read more about Santa Cruz’s water rationing efforts here.