SCOTTS VALLEY -- The rate increase that went into effect last month for Scotts Valley water customers was modest enough not to raise controversy. But it's part of a long-running battle whose root cause is meeting the supply and demand for a relatively cheap yet unappreciated natural resource: water.

The district already has conservation rules in place, fining residents who repeatedly waste water through careless activities. For example, ratepayers are prohibited from producing excessive surface runoff while watering grass, lawn or shrubbery, or using water without a reasonable purpose.

But households can take extra steps that save both water and money, and teaching those basics is the idea behind the "Water Wednesdays" series, free, 90-minute talks led by local experts through January.

The district's water is pulled from the Santa Margarita aquifer, and residents pay about one cent per gallon, LeAnne Ravinale, the district's water conservation coordinator, told a roomful of residents Wednesday. That's "a really good deal," she said, but water is still limited and homeowners' conservation efforts, however small, can help.

Wednesday's topic, "Stormwater Management," was led by Angie Gruys, a communications specialist with the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County. In the fall, funding will be available through that agency and Ecology Action so homeowners can purchase and install rain barrels, used to capture and store rainfall, and downspouts, used to more evenly distribute water captured in gutters, rather than letting it gush toward one area.

Other water-saving features include swales, designed to channel runoff to particular areas, and rain gardens, shallow depressions often filled with small rocks and native, drought-resistant plants.

These and other yard features have numerous benefits beyond conserving water, including creating wildlife habitat, reducing erosion and protecting the foundations of homes, Gruys said. But land features vary, and while the ideas are great in concept, she said, "it's important to know your site."

Before they get too ambitious, homeowners should first survey their land to find out where the stormwater flows, where improvements can be made and figure out whether they are up for the costs of the projects and maintaining them once complete. Free consultations can be scheduled by calling 831-464-2950, ext. 22 or emailing agruys@rcdsantacruz.org.

The next talk in the series, "Rainwater & Graywater," will be held Jan. 16, followed by "Indoor Water Efficiency & Basic Plumbing" on Jan. 23 and "Waterwise Landscaping" on Jan. 30.

Follow Sentinel reporter Kimberly White on Twitter at Twitter.com/kwhite95066