As the Californian drought drags on and on, water theft is on the rise around the state. Given the severity of the situation – with almost 60 percent of the state currently experiencing exceptional drought – it is perhaps unsurprising that people are getting desperate. However reports indicate that some people are attempting to sell water on the black market, leading to calls for penalties for water theft to be drastically increased.
Water theft is not a new phenomenon in the current drought, it’s been under discussion for months. But instead of diverting water from streams and canals or fudging the stats on water consumption, thieves are now sinking to new lows and actively targeting the facilities of schools, businesses and institutions, as well as fire hydrants. In one particularly concerning incident over the summer wildfire season, a fire station in North San Juan at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains had thousands of gallons of water stolen from storage tanks. The thieves were never identified and the fire station has now resorted to putting locks on its water supply.
The California State Water Resources Control Board has 22 employees to investigate “illegal diversions,” as it refers to the thefts, but currently there’s no coordinated statewide effort to monitor, control and punish such crimes. In some parts of the state, such as Contra Costa County, fines start at as low as just $25. Mendocino County is taking water theft very seriously. The County has a hotline for reporting thefts, investigates tip offs and actively patrols to try to catch thieves in the act, because here is the difficulty: it is very hard to prove water theft unless the thief is caught red handed.
In Mendocino in August, a sheriff’s deputy had a lucky break after following signs of spilled water along a dirt road. The deputy soon came upon a truck kitted out with with a water tank. According to the National Journal, “A confession came quickly. The driver had siphoned water from a nearby canal and planned to sell it to the highest bidder.” However, despite its efforts to catch perpetrators, Mendocino County classes still water theft as a misdemeanor. County Supervisor Carre Brown thinks this is insufficient. She told the National Journal, “To me this is like looting during a disaster. It should be a felony.” With substantial fines in place in the state for wasting water and no end to the drought in sight, it’s probably time a consistent system of punishments for stealing the precious resource caught up.