Police Sgt. Angela Velarde is looking for wet grass and wash buckets, clues of the latest crime wave sweeping this bone-dry town.
With much of the Southeast in the grip of a drought unlike any seen for generations, police are enforcing mandatory watering bans in many areas where water supplies have fallen to critical levels.
For Velarde, the job means driving through neighborhoods with brown grass and wilted flowers. She keeps an eye out for telltale signs of watering scofflaws: grass that's damp on sunny days when watering is banned; clean cars sitting in wet driveways under cloudless skies.
Officers on the "water detail" work day and night because some people in this town of 11,000 are going to the extreme of night watering.
Police write about a dozen tickets a week and have even caught homeowners sneaking outdoors to water their brown, crunchy lawns at 1 a.m.
Thinking like drug dealers
"It's almost like people are thinking like drug dealers trying to come up with ways to water," said Velarde. Violators can be fined as much as $500 in city court.
Located about 30 miles south of Birmingham, Calera isn't the only city where police are spending less time looking for speeders and more time looking for waterers. Similar patrols are under way in metro Atlanta, Florida and Texas, among other dried-out locales.
Officers will soon begin enforcing watering restrictions in Birmingham. And officers in another suburb, Hoover, are handing out letters to people who ignore that city's restrictions.
Hoover police spokesman A.C. Roper said police get a few calls every week from neighbors reporting on neighbors for watering on days when it's prohibited.
"It's like they're thinking, 'If my grass is going to be brown, yours is, too,'" said Roper, a deputy chief.
The same thing is true in Calera, where the restrictions took effect last month.
'No honor among thieves'
"There's no honor among neighbors," said Velarde.
Calera bans all watering on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, and residents with an even-numbered address can water once daily for two hours on Mondays and Thursday. People with an odd-numbered address get to water on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Five people paid fines for watering violations last year, when the ban also was in place, but no one has appeared in city court this year so far on the charge. Officials say the ban has helped the city keep water in its storage tanks, which hold 7 million gallons.
Nelvin Wade said she has quit watering everything but a few potted flowers at her house, and her neighbors seem to have given up, too.
"Everything looks brown to me," said Wade, working at a small produce stand near downtown.
All of Alabama and most of the Southeast is experiencing a severe drought, with rainfall deficits of as much as 20 inches for the year recorded in areas. Forecasters say a drought of such intensity occurs once every 50 to 100 years.