Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images

California love: Water thieves just can’t get enough

In northern areas of the state, counties report illegal diversions from tanks, wells and streams

LOS ANGELES — Something rare quickly becomes valuable. So it should come as no surprise that the latest target of thieves in a state suffering a historic drought is water.

California thieves are cutting pipes and taking water from fire hydrants, storage tanks, creeks and rivers to get their hands on several hundred gallons of the precious commodity.

They drive in the thick of night with a 1,000-gallon tank on the back of a pickup and go after the liquid gold wherever they can find it. Some have hit the same target twice in one night, filling up their tank, unloading it into storage and returning for a second fill-up.

Counties, mostly in the more rural northern parts of California, are reporting a surge in thefts and illegal diversions of water from wells and streams. The prime suspects are illegal marijuana farmers desperate for water before the fall harvest, which would explain the surge in water thievery over the summer.

“A lot of the wells have gone dry, and the marijuana growers have run out of water and have been illegally taking the water out of the creeks,” said Hank Weston, supervisor in Nevada County, an old mining area in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California’s northeast. (The county has been around longer than the state of Nevada next door.)

“They have broken into a school district holding tank and in the fire department’s holding tank,” Weston said. “Some of the water trucks are pulling up near rivers and dropping water hoses in and suctioning it out.”

All of which is illegal, of course, but does not usually amount to much more than fines and a misdemeanor — at least for now.

Weston has lived in Nevada County since 1988. Despite a series of severe droughts in the past 30 years, he said, “it’s the first time I’ve heard of this.”

‘A lot of the wells have gone dry, and the marijuana growers have run out of water and have been illegally taking the water out of the creeks.’

Hank Weston

supervisor, Nevada County

This water rustling wave evokes the Wild West and the adage that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting — an unconfirmed quote widely attributed to Mark Twain.

In 2014 the fight to catch the water thieves is on.

Local law enforcement and state agencies have set up hotlines for water theft reporting and illegal water diversions. Schools that have been hit have installed security cameras. Fire stations have put locks on water valves.

The State Water Resources Control Board has received $1.4 million this year from the legislature for a pilot cannabis enforcement program to crack down on illegal tapping of water sources.

The board is working with California Fish and Wildlife and regional water control agencies in charge of enforcing water quality to crack down on those who take water they have no right to take.

“For many water rights violations, it might be a $1,000 a day penalty or even as low as $500,” said Chris Carrigan, the state’s top water cop. “But for water quality, fines are $5,000 to $10,000 a day.”

The biggest deterrent has been a neighborhood watch campaign of sorts that asks residents to be on the lookout. Carrigan advises anyone who sees a thief in action to “take a photograph. Photograph the license plate number.”

Some of those doing the stealing are companies that sell water to homeowners with dry wells. Ads that say “I will deliver water to your property” are quickly flagged, Carrigan said. His enforcement division calls the number, sets up a delivery and often catches the pilferers in action.

“People have been caught, and people have been cited,” said Carre Brown, Mendocino County supervisor and chairwoman of a countywide drought task force.

Mendocino, on California’s North Coast, is a hotbed of illegal marijuana grows. “I would say the main culprits were the ones who were looking to water marijuana gardens,” she said. “The penalties in California are not harsh enough.”

At a construction site for a Highway 101 bypass, some water poachers tried to get into the water-truck line used by construction crews. Some tried to masquerade as fire crews to get at water kept at Cal Fire camps.

‘For many water rights violations, it might be a $1,000 a day penalty or even as low as $500. But for water quality, fines are $5,000 to $10,000 a day.’

Chris Carrigan

California’s top water cop

The Association of California Water Agencies has seen water theft incidents bubbling up around the state but has no hard numbers because most of the evidence is anecdotal, said Lisa Lien-Mager, an association spokeswoman. “We may see the trend continue if drought conditions persist into 2015.”

She warned that water rustling is far from an everyday occurrence and that “that’s important to keep in mind.”

Maybe so, but the North San Juan Fire Protection District in Nevada County, which had 8,000 gallons of water stolen from one station in early August, is taking no chances. The fire department has placed combination locks on its water valves, which slows fire response by about 30 seconds but protects the department’s water supply.

“We made a stink about it because we realize that the way to deal with it for us was to publicize it widely and get local vigilantes riled up,” said Battalion Chief Boyd Johnson. “This is a potentially dangerous thing for the community to have the water from the fire department taken.”

No one has been caught for the August theft that drained the targeted station of three-fourths of its water. Luckily, it was discovered within 24 hours because an engineer noticed puddles of water on the ground. Had it not been caught then, it might have been discovered only in response to a fire emergency, which could have been disastrous.

The watch program has been so effective in Mendocino County that a farmer who was legitimately filling up water from his well and transporting it to another side of his ranch got a quick visit from law enforcement.

“We all work together,” Brown said. “We see a water truck moving, we ask if it’s a legal one.”

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