H2Oh-No: California drought brings about rise in water theft

By Isaiah Jurado

Source: Global Finance

Source: Global Finance

It’s hard enough to provide sufficient water for the state during one of California’s most severe droughts, but when the water is being stolen, the job gets all the more difficult.

Water theft in California has risen as the state is experiencing the 3rd worst drought in the last 120 years.

Thieves range from homeowners to illegal marijuana cultivators, as billions of gallons of water are being illegally taken from rivers, canals and streams.

Illegal marijuana cultivators, especially in Northern California, are some of the worst offenders in the sense that they steal water to grow illicit drugs–usually on federal land. The state has combated this by passing a bill to make water diversion and vegetation removal criminal offenses, along with growing illicit drugs on federal land. More legislation is being proposed by U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California) who has worked to finalize the Protecting Lands Against Narcotics Trafficking Act, to increase punishment for those conducting illegal marijuana sites.

Other theft often takes the form of individuals who have water permits, but take more than allowed, or homeowners who create channels and irrigation systems from nearby bodies of water to irrigate their lawns or fill pools.

The state already looses roughly 23 billion gallons of water each year due to leaky pipes, but the theft is only making matters worse. Fines for water theft range dramatically due to the amount of water taken, but overall California’s water security is weak. Some of the main problems with water security lie in the fact that water is hard to monitor and basically belongs to everyone.

A basic principle of California water is that all the fresh water in the state’s lakes and streams belongs to the public. It’s very easy to get a state permit to use our water for domestic or commercial purposes. With this, the regulation of those with permits becomes incredibly hard to enforce as the state has no way of measuring the amount a person may be taking–making it easy for individuals to take more water than they are allowed.

“In fact, regulation is so difficult that since 2005, the water board has only imposed fines or other corrective measures on just 30 property owners for illegal diversion. And even if they are caught, the paperwork can take years to process.

Thankfully, the state is aware of this problem and has taken measures to inhibit its growth, especially because this problem is only getting worse and worse the longer we are in drought.

According to Fresno Bee Writer Matt Weiser, “On March 1, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law that allows the board to order emergency curtailments on streams that risk running out of water. It also allows the board to skip some steps in the enforcement process, and jump straight to the cease-and-desist and penalty phases if the board believes a diverter is violating a curtailment order. Finally, it doubles penalties for an illegal diversion to $1,000 per day, and adds a $2,500 per acre-foot penalty. Violating a cease-and-desist order gets even more painful, with penalties jumping from $1,000 to $10,000 per day.”

Personally, I think the increase in the rates of the fines is appropriate. We also should be looking towards instituting a faster and more direct penalty process in order to combat the theft. The prevention of water theft is a difficult task, but we can make it more unappealing with higher fines and better regulation by communities. Realistically, the water system is far too large for any serious state monitoring system to be implemented as it simply wouldn’t be cost effective to monitor so many rivers, lakes, and streams. Therefore, we should also be responsible as communities to watch out for susceptible water sources, rather than relying on the state.

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