Gulp!

California’s Drought Is So Bad, Thieves Are Now Stealing Water

Forget gold or cash, credit cards or gas: The hot new commodity in the land of drought is H20.

05.29.15 9:25 AM ET

In drought-plagued California, thieves are getting mighty thirsty.

At least one managed to make off with a 500-gallon water tanker. The wide load just up and vanished from a highway offramp.

It was early morning last Thursday when the Marina landscaping tanker truck was idling on a median by a tunnel in Oakland, according to police reports. Then some clever perp jacked it—and rode off with its tapped cargo.

It’s one of a growing number of water-related crimes in California, where Governor Jerry Brown has issued an executive order to cut water use by 25 percent (PDF). These tough times are forcing them to forsake their signature emerald lawns, cut carwash trips, flush the toilet only for number twos. It’s such an incendiary climate that any Dick that forgets about the running hose for days might as well cop a plea as an arsonist.

So as the drought slogs into biblical proportions—recording the driest period in the state’s history—crimes of dehydration may become the new normal.

“It’s basically collateral damage I’m sure from the drought,” John Coleman, who sits on the board of the East Bay Municipal Utility District, where the joyrider who stole the water tanker remains in the wind, told The Daily Beast. “The drought is driving the price of water up and you’re starting to see people who are desperate for it willing to get it any way they can,” he said. He rattled off instances ranging from ripping off vacationing families to some going for broke and skimming from the local water source. “We’ve had situations in the past where people have stolen from their neighbor’s houses when they’re gone to some folks who didn’t want to pay for the water and dug under the street and tapped into the main line,” he said.

A next-door neighbor told The Daily Beast he was surprised to learn the tanker had been boosted. But it wasn’t like the landscapers made any friends. They left their gear and construction trucks squatting for months to complete the federally funded fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel project. “It’s kind of bothering because they were taking up our parking spots,” said the neighbor, an engineer who requested anonymity.

The tanker, according to law enforcement officials, was stationed at that spot to hose down dust particles caused by construction. (Calls and repeated emails to Marina’s executives and CEO were not returned.)

But what would a thief want with an estimated $5,000 worth of something that any moron with enough buckets and time to kill could collect from a hose or drinking fountain?

All sorts of things.

“Somebody could conceivably have a 500-gallon tank on a property and use it outside our service area for water,” Coleman said. “They could be growing something, or [raising] animals or for their own personal use, and they may be augmenting because there wasn’t enough rain this year.”

Or they could be dumping it on what researchers guess—but can’t yet prove—is an emerging gray market for H20.

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“The drought could potentially create a market for cheap water, giving any opportunistic thief a good financial incentive,” Bill McClanahan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Essex in the U.K., told The Daily Beast.

McClanahan has conducted extensive research on environmental offenses or so-called “green criminology” where the changes in nature affect crime. And he is convinced that basic supply and demand set thieves off and running toward the next commodity.

This time it’s water.

“With the drought already having some serious economic impacts in the regions it’s little wonder that people might occasionally be turning to whatever means they can identify to fill in the gaps,” McClanahan said.

Indeed, the precipitation levels so far this year are at “exceptional drought” levels, as the rainy season (if you can hold back the sarcasm) concludes in June.

If it’s not tankers being targeted by water bandits they’re certainly not shy to wrench water hydrants loose. That was the case last Wednesday when a construction worker in Sacramento was nabbed for attempting to gank possibly thousands of gallons of water in a rental truck, authorities confirmed.

M&M Truck & Trailer Repair had rented a truck to a contractor and the company’s driver was unlicensed. “We did observe this vehicle that was using a hose connected to the fire hydrant and our officers conducted a stop and investigated,” Sacramento police officer Justin Brown told The Daily Beast.

Cops immediately impounded the vehicle, which had already been pumped more than three-quarters filled with pirated water before city officials swooped in. “You have to have a permit to open up a hydrant and utilize the water,” Rhea Serran, a spokeswoman for the the state capital city’s public utilities department, said. “It’s under investigation but we are still determining how much water may have been taken.”

When reached by The Daily Beast, a worker at M&M Truck and Trailer Repair admitted they rented the truck but denied it was actually theirs.

“I don’t know what they are doing with the water,” said one worker, who only gave his first name: Farzim. “We hired a construction company and it’s their mistake.

“We just repair the trucks,” he added, before becoming incensed and incomprehensible.

“You don’t have any other news going on?” he asked, and when pressed again about the reason to drain the hydrant, he squealed: “To use it on your girl.”

But Fazim and his company may have other issues. They face stiff fines from $100 to a cool grand, courtesy of the city of Sacramento.

Drought deviance may be seeing an uptick, but it’s the state’s factory farms that are sucking up the springs the most, some activists claim. Mark Schlosberg—organizing director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group fighting for “wholesome food, clean water and sustainable energy”—contends that it’s almond farming empires that have been hogging the water. “Corporate agribusiness uses tremendous amounts of water in the state and we have been focusing on the larger systemic problems that exist and what we should do about it,” he said.

He also points to almond and pistachio producers like Paramount Farms, with Central Valley hubs that require more than double the water to grow versus in Northern California because of troubles with runoff. Schlosberg said of farms like Paramount, “in the last five years the acreage for almond growing has doubled on the dry west side of the Central Valley, increasing the demand for water for this commodity crop, even as the drought worsens.”

In addition, environmental activist cited bottling corporations like Nestlé that are “overpumping” during this crisis. “It’s unconscionable in the middle of a drought that we’re bottling water,” he said.

Nestlé would counter that they, more than anybody, want to preserve the springs and keep their levels perpetually up. “Water resources are a lifeblood for our business,” Nestlé Waters spokeswoman Jane Lazgin told The Daily Beast. “We have a stake in sustainable water resources. To manage water resources for long-term sustainability, we regularly monitor spring water flows and environmental conditions, as well as diversify our springs, so we don’t over-rely on any one source.”

Painting Big Ag and Nestlé as the drought villains is a miscalculation, Lazgin said. Such unfounded attacks could compel her company and others—who see themselves as good stewards, not water ghouls—to flee. “One development with the drought is additional scrutiny and more thoughtful dialogue about water use. We believe California wants businesses to stay in California. In our case, we are focusing on innovative techniques in water conservation and efficiency, so we can continue to be a responsible company in California.”

Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies in California are organizing task forces dedicated to putting water scofflaws out of business. Tulare County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Rob Schimpf said he’s seen the drought further intensify the piracy for agriculture equipment—nearly $2.7 million worth. “The drought itself has made a huge impact on our community,” he said in a phone interview. “We’re right in the heart of it… It’s bad. There are trees being pushed over, we’re losing crops for lack of water.”

The county is known for cattle and crops like corn, cotton, citrus fruits, and nuts. “We have a lot of range cattle sold off to other states because the vegetation on our foothills and mountains is gone,” Schimpf said.

This past weekend water bandits struck again. This time they ripped off a drought relief center called the Porterville Area Coordinating Council in Tulare County. The crooks managed to drive off with a 1972 Ford F250 pickup, pricey pressure washers and water pumps, and cases of water.

The charitable group, which according to its website has served as a lifeline for neighboring communities since 1972, was trying to help the needy who had hit a dire dry spell. The answering machine’s prompt kindly informs anybody calling the exact street location where in real-time they are “giving bottled water away.”

The agency’s longtime director, Eva Beltran, said she was destroyed that looters would stoop to such a low level. “We have children waking up who can’t brush their teeth. They can’t flush the toilet, they can’t even talk a shower, because there is no water in the home,” she said. “It breaks my spirit.”

Sometimes the water crimes start out rather innocently.

David Switzer has lived on a little over an acre in Modesto, California, for decades and has been dipping into the city’s canal all that time.

“There were several of us irrigating and siphoning our water out of the canal and for 30 years nobody bothered us,” the 85-year-old retired building contractor told The Daily Beast. Switzer would keep a small hedge of cypress trees and tangerine trees plenished with canal water.

Last August, he paid the price—busted and outed online by the local utility, Modesto Irrigation District, for thieving water.

“Then they come out here with their backhoes and their dump trucks all to take out a little two-inch pipe,” he said.

Worse, he and some of his neighbors had their names plastered on the city’s website. But Switzer didn’t know his name was publicized because he’s not big on tech. “They said if we signed the paper that we would never do it again then they’d take our name off the Internet or Facebook or whatever. We don’t have that kind of technology and we don’t have a television, none of that,” he said.

He and his neighbors were initially hit with a $1,500 fine. They fought back and won, claiming that the pitch tender, the person from the city tasked with taking inventory of homeowners’ water usage, stuffed notices of water revocation into their mailboxes, breaking federal postage laws. “They backed off and didn’t fine us at all,” said Switzer.

But the Modesto Irrigation District (who confirmed the settlement with Switzer and his neighbors) said his pipe was more than a nuisance. “All of our city suffers when someone takes water in ways that they shouldn’t,” Modesto Irrigation District spokeswoman Melissa Williams said.

She credits the city’s stepped-up water tending patrols and scarlet letter measures to decentivize the water siphoning.

And the names came down after they agreed to fix the breach.

“When everything was settled we removed them [from the website],” Williams said.

But to anybody thinking about pulling a wet and fast one by them, think again. “If there are cases this season we will follow the same steps,” she said.

Now that Switzer and his neighbors are back on legitimate lines, he quips that the irrigating system is wasting more water. “I used a lot less the other way.”