Drought Is Taking California Back to the Wild, Wild West

A water faucet stands next to a field of uprooted almond trees at Baker Farming on February 25, 2014 in Firebaugh, California. Almond farmer Barry Baker of Baker Farming had 1,000 acres, 20 percent, of his almond trees removed because he doesn't have access to enough water to keep them watered as the California drought continues. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials announced this past Friday that they will not be providing Central Valley farmers with any water from the federally run system of reservoirs and canals fed by mountain runoff. 
National Journal
Clare Foran
Nov. 10, 2014, 2:38 p.m.

Mary Mad­den feels para­noid.

Last fall Mad­den no­ticed something sus­pi­cious. The wa­ter filling the tanks out­side her veter­in­ary clin­ic in Los Ga­tos, Cal­if., was dis­ap­pear­ing at an alarm­ing rate. Mad­den checked for leaks but found none. Then she real­ized: Someone was steal­ing her wa­ter.

“I just couldn’t be­lieve it,” she said. “You nev­er ima­gine any­one would do something like that but there it was, van­ish­ing right be­fore our eyes.”

Mad­den de­cided to act. She in­stalled se­cur­ity cam­er­as. Then she put locks on the tanks. She even strung a chain across her drive­way to keep out un­wanted vis­it­ors. The theft stopped after the locks went on. But Mad­den nev­er caught the thief, and she can’t stop think­ing about who did it.

“This is a really small com­munity, so you sit here and start go­ing through every­one you know and won­der­ing if it was them,” she said.

Mad­den is not alone. Wa­ter theft has be­come in­creas­ingly com­mon in Cali­for­nia as the state suf­fers through its worst drought on re­cord. There’s no re­li­able track­ing of just how much wa­ter has gone miss­ing. But re­ports of theft rose dra­mat­ic­ally in the past year. Of­fi­cials say a black mar­ket set up to peddle wa­ter is thriv­ing as wells run dry. And law en­force­ment is scram­bling to re­spond.

Men­d­o­cino County has made catch­ing wa­ter thieves a top pri­or­ity. The sher­iff’s of­fice set up a wa­ter-theft hot­line and in­vest­ig­ates every tip. It also puts out patrols to sniff out sus­pi­cious activ­ity.

In Au­gust, a sher­iff’s deputy there fol­lowed a trail of wa­ter droplets up a dirt road where he dis­covered a truck out­fit­ted with a wa­ter tank. A con­fes­sion came quickly. The driver had siphoned wa­ter from a nearby canal and planned to sell it to the highest bid­der.

The Pub­lic Works De­part­ment in Lemoore, in Kings County, hired someone to scan city streets for thieves after of­fi­cials found evid­ence that someone has been steal­ing wa­ter from fire hy­drants.

For now, a statewide ef­fort to curb wa­ter theft has yet to ma­ter­i­al­ize. So cit­ies and counties have been left to de­vise their own meth­ods of re­tri­bu­tion.

Of­fi­cials com­plain that the pen­alty for get­ting caught may not be suf­fi­ciently strict: Men­d­o­cino County counts wa­ter theft as a mis­de­mean­or. County Su­per­visor Carre Brown con­siders that a slap on the wrist. “To me this is like loot­ing dur­ing a dis­aster. It should be a felony,” Brown said.

Con­tra Costa County fines any­one caught steal­ing wa­ter $25. Amid worsen­ing theft, the county may soon in­crease the pen­alty to $250 and up the amount to $500 for re­peat of­fend­ers.

But even with all the at­ten­tion from law en­force­ment, of­fi­cials say that much of the theft has gone un­pun­ished.

“This is something that’s very hard to pin down. If you don’t catch someone in the act, how do you prove they did it?” Men­d­o­cino County Sher­iff Tom All­man said.

As a res­ult, some Cali­for­nia res­id­ents have taken mat­ters in­to their own hands. On­line for­ums and com­munity mes­sage boards serve as in­form­al chan­nels where people can post a warn­ing. Word-of-mouth has also proven ef­fect­ive at spread­ing in­form­a­tion.

After Mad­den told people what had happened, neigh­bors star­ted to keep an eye on her prop­erty. “People will tell me if they see a truck linger­ing nearby when I’m not there,” she said. “We all look out for each oth­er.”

Rur­al com­munit­ies where res­id­ents rely on well wa­ter and areas of the state that play host to ag­ri­cul­tur­al op­er­a­tions and il­leg­al marijuana cul­tiv­a­tion have been par­tic­u­larly hard hit.

Thou­sands of gal­lons of wa­ter were stolen from a fire sta­tion in North San Juan, a town nestled in the foot­hills of the Si­erra Nevada Moun­tains, at the height of wild­fire sea­son this sum­mer. The theft was dis­covered after an en­gin­eer hit the sta­tion’s wa­ter tank and heard a hol­low ringing sound rather than the usu­al thud.

“We were just ab­so­lutely stunned,” said Boyd John­son, a bat­talion chief with the North San Juan fire de­part­ment. “Fires are on every­one’s mind dur­ing the sum­mer so to see this hap­pen, I think it really scared people.”

Res­id­ents of North San Juan de­pend on wells for wa­ter. The area is also known for grow­ing marijuana and loc­ated just a few hours north of Cali­for­nia’s Cent­ral Val­ley, an area of the state where farm­ers rely on massive amounts of wa­ter to en­sure the suc­cess of their crops.

This past sum­mer thieves also made off with wa­ter from an ele­ment­ary school and a pub­lic health clin­ic on the San Juan Ridge.

James Be­rardi, the prin­cip­al of the school that was hit, says se­cur­ity cam­er­as have been in­stalled in an ef­fort to catch thieves. The fire de­part­ment is also tak­ing pre­cau­tions. After the theft, lock­boxes with a com­bin­a­tion pad­lock were put on each of the sta­tion’s wa­ter tanks.

“It slows us down a bit get­ting to the wa­ter, but at least we know it’s safe,” John­son said.

A grow­ing num­ber of wells have run dry on the ridge as the drought drags on. And that, ac­cord­ing to Caleb Dardick, a res­id­ent of nearby Nevada City, means the theft is un­likely to end any­time soon.

“People are be­com­ing des­per­ate,” Dardick said. “The situ­ation has be­come really severe in the last few years.”

All this has made wa­ter a chief con­cern for res­id­ents of the state who say they nev­er used to give wa­ter a second thought.

“I think about wa­ter con­stantly, ob­sess­ively,” Mad­den said. “I wake up every day dread­ing what might hap­pen if we run out.”

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