They came to wash away their sins.
On a recent Saturday morning, 26 residents filed into a makeshift classroom at the city of Sacramento’s Water Conservation Office near Executive Airport. Some looked annoyed, others a bit sheepish.
All were here because they’d been fined $50 apiece for violating the city’s water restrictions. By attending a one-hour class on conservation, they could get the fine cleansed from their record.
“You’d rather be fishing this morning, right?” city water conservation specialist Alek Crnogorac told one glum-looking middle-aged man shuffling to his seat. The man chuckled.
Welcome to “drought school,” or what the city of Sacramento refers to as its water conservation workshop. Once or twice a month, in a program similar to traffic school, the city offers water offenders an opportunity to whitewash their fines.
Few cities are more aggressive when it comes to policing water use. Sacramento levied 1,137 fines for wasting water from April to September, the latest data available. Nonetheless, water conservation officials said they aren’t out to collect revenue; the idea behind drought school is to get residents to learn from their mistakes.
“We don’t want to take their money; we just want them to follow the rules,” said Maureen Coulson, a conservation project manager.
The Sacramento Regional Water Authority runs a similar program, called “water school,” on behalf of 16 area water agencies. Attendees must pass a five-part quiz to get their fines waived, although program director Amy Talbot acknowledged the test isn’t too difficult. (Question 2: Name one way to reduce outdoor water use.) The point, she said, is to get people thinking about conservation.
“It provides a way to capture their attention for an hour and educate them on how to save water,” said Talbot, the authority’s water efficiency program manager. The authority’s classes have attracted just 34 students combined this year, although Talbot thinks attendance will perk up this fall.
Sacramento’s school has been more popular, graduating 272 students so far this year. (There’s no test.)
Many enrolled after they were caught watering their lawns on the wrong day. Others got nailed for washing their cars without a shutoff nozzle. On this particular Saturday, quite a few in attendance were landlords whose tenants broke the law.
They all had one thing in common: They were guilty of a second offense, which brings a $50 fine. The first citation carries a warning, not a fine. Third and fourth offenses bring fines of $200 and $1,000, respectively, and won’t be waived.
Crnogorac and his fellow instructor, Paul Brown, showed the students slides of the snowpack disappearing over the years from Half Dome and charts explaining Sacramento’s water-consumption patterns, and he provided them with tips on how to fix leaky toilets and ensure their sprinklers don’t shower the street.
“Make sure you’re not overwatering,” Brown told the class. “You’ve got to make sure you keep the water out of the gutter.”
Fully 60 percent of Sacramento’s water use goes to outdoor irrigation, Brown said, reminding students that Sacramentans are limited to watering their lawns just once a week starting Sunday. He and Crnogorac urged the students to take advantage of the city’s rebate programs for low-flow toilets, washing machines and smart controllers for their sprinklers.
All in all, things went swimmingly. Some students took notes, although a few checked their phones. A couple chimed in with questions, including a query about the city’s decision to let developers build more houses during a drought.
“That’s a question for a councilman,” Crnogorac said.
Drought school has been around for years, city officials said, but enrollment has bloomed this year. The instructors are under no illusions about why their classes are suddenly so well-attended.
“They obviously didn’t come here because they wanted to spend one hour with us,” Crnogorac said. “They want to waive their fines.”
Some students said afterward that it wasn’t just about the money.
“It was worth coming,” said Alan Huber, who lives in Elk Grove but got dinged for violations at a rental he owns in the Greenhaven neighborhood. “I did learn a number of things. I just hope I can make sure it all gets done properly so I don’t get any more citations.”
There’s quite a bit more at stake in drought school than $50 fines. Communities statewide are under orders from Gov. Jerry Brown to cut water consumption by an average of 25 percent, as compared with 2013, through next February.
Because Sacramentans historically have been heavy water users, the city has been ordered to hit higher savings: 28 percent. Sacramento has reduced usage by an average of 33 percent since Brown’s order took effect in June, but missed the target in September, when savings fell to 26.5 percent.
“We’re still doing pretty good,” Brown told his students. “We’ve got to be diligent.”
When the hour was up, the students politely applauded their instructors and headed out the door with their goodie bags: buckets loaded with complimentary low-flow nozzles and written materials on water efficiency.
Their instructors, meanwhile, left knowing this wouldn’t be their last class. Just before the session began, Brown said, he had been out patrolling the streets of Sacramento, issuing citations to future students.
“They were letting runoff spill into their gutter,” he said.
Nailed for wasting water?
Head to one of these drought schools:
▪ City of Sacramento: http://portal.cityofsacramento.org/Utilities/Conservation/Conservation-Calendar
▪ Sacramento Regional Water Authority: http://bewatersmart.info/water-school/