This Santa Cruz water cop has begun his patrol
If you left your sprinklers on too long, or you’ve watered your lawn so much that your street looks like a river, you’d better watch out—there’s a new sheriff in town.
As of May 1, Kyle Smith started patrolling Santa Cruz looking for people violating the strict restrictions of the Stage 3 water shortage imposed on the city. As the Santa Cruz Water Department’s enforcement officer, he patrols for six months at a time during water shortages.
Even God isn’t immune: on Saturday, Smith, 25, wrote up a citation at the First Assembly of God on Mission Street because the church had its sprinklers running. Businesses, a category that includes houses of worship, are only allowed to water on Tuesdays in Santa Cruz, or on Thursdays outside the city limits.
A lot of cities talk about how they’ll enforce water restrictions, but Smith says it’s rare that they actually pay someone to patrol and respond to complaints. He earns $21 an hour, and in his first month of patrolling, he’s given out up to seven violations per day.
Smith’s work day starts at 5:30 a.m., checking voice messages and emails, and he’s in his city car a half hour later, driving from Swift Street to 41st Avenue, up Branciforte and DelaVeaga Park drives, scouting the city like a dowser looking for water—wasted water, that is.
“If it stays in the gutter in front of their home, that’s pretty normal,” he says. “But when it begins to drain down the street, that is when you know the water is no longer staying in the yard.” The offender’s sprinklers are hitting the street instead of the grass.
Violations include over-watering, watering between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., watering after rain, washing your driveway (unless something is causing a danger) or home (unless you are about to paint it), refilling a swimming pool, and using a hose that doesn’t have a shut-off nozzle.
The first offense gets a phone call and letter from Smith. The second offense is a $100 fine, the third goes up to $250, and the fourth is a gushing $500—plus you must install a water restrictor and pay for it. The city has a one-time forgiveness policy for leaks.
When Smith spots an offender, he takes pictures as evidence and fills out a report detailing the location, time and type of violation.
Residents have up to two weeks to correct the first offense, but for Smith, it is about giving notice and educating people. He explains that he is not out to write tickets.
“I just want to help,” he says. “I like to call first, and then send a letter. I feel like it gives them a better chance at resolving the issue. Most people don’t even realize that there is a problem.”
Smith isn’t checking on your showers, but your water meter is. Single family homes are allowed 7,480 gallons of water a month. If they go over, they will pay penalties of $25-$50 for every 748 gallons they go over. (A 10-minute shower with a low-flow showerhead uses about 50 gallons.)
Education is a big part of Smith’s job when he isn’t patrolling. He attends farmers markets where he gives tips for managing water usage, and he also has to listen to the concerns expressed by the public.
“Some people really think they have the answers to our drought,” he says. “I just kind of nod along.”
Businesses are not being rationed, but have different requirements to aid in water conservation. Restaurants, for example, can only serve water if customers ask for it. They are required to post signs explaining that.
Smith drops signs off at other businesses promoting water consciousness and making recommendations about how they can lower consumption. He also lets them know that the city offers rebates on water-efficient appliances.
He monitors municipal usage, too. Parks, for instance, are rationed based on the size of the park and the plant life that grows there. “The water district calculates what they would ideally need, then they allot the park about a third of that. So far, parks have been really good about following the ration,” says Smith. But he did once have to call the city about a faulty timer on the Harvey West Park watering system.
Rental units and vacation homes are more troublesome, because he has to find the actual owner for problems like leaks, he says.
A UCSC environmental studies grad, Smith hopes this job is a stepping stone to a research position. For the time being, he also works as a bar back at the West End Tap & Kitchen. Some of his water policing stories will make great bar talk, like the one about the hot tub.
“Just the other day, I got this email,” Smith says. “A resident was upset because their neighbor uses their hot tub every night and drains it every few weeks. Well, hot tubs are different from pools, where they can be drained, but this person was going on and on about their neighbor using the hot tub, and they were clearly very upset. I concluded that they were just very jealous, and also incredibly creepy for watching their neighbor’s hot tub.”
To report problems, call 420-LEAK. You can learn more about restrictions at the city’s drought page at cityofsantacruz.com. The city is also giving out rebates for those who take charge of their water: $150 for installing a high-efficiency toilet, $100 for an efficient clothes washer and 50 cents a square foot for removing your lawn.
Photo: Kyle Smith, the Santa Cruz Water Department’s enforcement officer, takes photos to document water waste. NICOLE HENRY