Last spring, water pressure in pipes in the Antelope Valley unexpectedly dropped, setting off alarms. Demand had suddenly risen to three and a half times typical levels. As a result, water mains burst, causing storage tanks to be drained to dangerously low levels.
The situation in Hi Vista, a desert town between Los Angeles and Mojave, was so bad that county health officials contemplated requiring residents to boil their tap water before drinking it.
"We were like, 'Holy cow, what is going on?'" said Anish Saraiya, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger's public works deputy.
Officials took some time to figure out where all that water was going: water thieves - most likely working for illegal marijuana operations - had taken water from remote filling stations and tapped into fire hydrants, improperly shutting off valves and threatening the water supply of nearly 300 homes.
Water theft has reached historic levels in California due to the drought that has gripped the majority of the state. As a result, water truck bandits are backing up to rivers and lakes and pumping free water to sell on the black market. Others recharge their batteries by plugging into municipal hydrants in the dead of night.
During the last drought, thieves stole water from houses, farms, and private wells, and some even built an intricate system of dams, reservoirs, and pipelines. Others are MacGyvering break-ins into pressurized water mains, known as hot-tapping and a risky and damaging method.
Thefts from rivers and streams in Mendocino County are jeopardizing the already reduced Russian River waters. In addition, thefts from hydrants might threaten a restricted water supply for fighting fires in one water district, which is why they have installed locks on hydrants.
"Any method you can think of for someone to get water, they're doing it," Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall said. "For the love of God, everyone knows what's going on."
It's predictable for a suffering economics class: when an item gets scarce, and demand rises, it's worth stealing.
According to officials, water thefts are growing at approximately the same rate as California's water supply declines. Complaints have increased dramatically this year, echoing the drought's relentless progress.
125 Californians have reported thefts to state police this year, more than twice as many as a decades earlier. These figures do not include calls to municipal officials or minor water agencies, which are in charge of most enforcement.
Thorn on Law Enforcement
Water thefts not only put a strain on police departments but also cause damage to expensive equipment. Water main breaks, which may cost $10,000 apiece to fix, have been occurring at a rate of approximately two per year in the Antelope Valley. There have been a dozen in the last year, according to Saraiya.
Water consumers are increasingly taking proactive measures to safeguard their supply. A large number of fire hydrants are being secured or removed entirely. Security cameras have been placed by the owners of the water tanks. Residents in remote regions who don't have access to municipal water systems and rely on key-activated water stations have their lifelines cut off due to tampering. The keys have developed a thriving illicit market, and most stations now only function during daytime hours.
There is no such thing as a safe water cache. During the previous drought, water theft struck businesses, schools, and even a fire station. In 2014, robbers stole water from the North San Juan Fire Protection District's storage tanks in Nevada County, located northeast of Sacramento.
Boyd Johnson, the district's previous battalion chief, stated, "I got to the station one morning, and there was a large wet patch." He said that the water was stolen for several weeks before the system was shut. "We share that water with CalFire, and water is clearly important in firefighting."
Watering Illegal Marijuana Plantations
Illegal marijuana plantations are the most prevalent source of water theft. While farmers, ranchers, and licensed marijuana growers try to get water through the legal system, illegal enterprises steal it or buy it from illicit vehicles.
According to official estimates, as many as 4,000 illicit grow sites operate in Nevada County in the Sierra Nevada. According to county data, illegal growth in the Antelope Valley has increased from 200 last year to 400 now, while other estimates put the number in the thousands.
While the vast desert provides some seclusion for marijuana operations, it lacks a crucial component of plant growth: water. A cannabis grower near Lancaster purchased a home solely to run a garden hose across the desert to his illicit grow location. Officials turned off the connection, but the ingenious thieves connected into another subterranean line and continued to water their plants.
Marijuana isn't a very thirsty crop, needing roughly the same amount of water as a tomato plant. Still, given the severity of the drought, even a tiny water diversion can significantly impact.
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