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Water Theft Becomes Common Consequence of Ongoing California Drought

With the state of California mired in its fourth year of drought and a mandatory 25 percent reduction in water usage in place, reports of water theft have become common.

In April, The Associated Press reported that huge amounts of water went missing from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a state investigation was launched. The delta is a vital body of water, serving 23 million Californians as well as millions of farm acres, according to the Association for California Water Agencies.

The AP reported in February that a number of homeowners in Modesto, California, were fined $1,500 for allegedly taking water from a canal. In another instance, thieves in the town of North San Juan stole hundreds of gallons of water from a fire department tank.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 46 percent of California is under exceptional drought conditions, the most intense measurement of drought according to the monitor. The drought is forecast to worsen this summer.

In Madera County, District Attorney David Linn has instituted a water crime task force to combat the growing trend of water theft occurring throughout the state and to protect rightful property owners from having their valuable water stolen.

The task force will combat agriculture crime through education by instructing farmers how to prevent crime before it occurs, Linn said in a news release back in March.

"Since the business of Madera is agriculture, I intend to make its protection a top priority," he said.

Jennifer Allen, spokesperson for the Contra Costa Water District in Concord, about 45 minutes from San Francisco, said it's not uncommon for her agency to receive reports of water theft, but as the drought has continued, she said there has been an uptick in reports.

"I believe during drought times people's sensitivities are certainly raised to any instances of water theft going on and so probably that's where we've been contacted," Allen said. "We would assume that more people are feeling the need to report out anything they've witnessed of somebody stealing water from a hydrant or from a neighbor."

To deter thieves, Allen said the CCWD Board of Directors has increased the fine for first-time offenders from $25 to $250. For any following offenses, the fine goes up to $500.

Primarily the CCWD has received reports of people illegally tapping into hydrants in order to fill up a tank or another sort of receptacle to store water. Additionally, Allen said that some contractors have targeted water pipes laid for new developments that may not have a meter attached to them or found a way to circumvent the meter.

Other water agencies are ramping up enforcement against water crime as well. The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), headquartered in Oakland, has enacted a new ordinance that would allow them to "fine persons for stealing water or making unauthorized use of a public fire hydrant," according to its website. According to the EBMUD, violators would be fined $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for a second violation.

However, for other areas, reports of theft have been less prevalent.

John Tang, Vice President of Government Relations & Corporate Communications for San Jose Water Company, told AccuWeather.com that water theft isn't that big of an issue for the company and they usually only see one or two reports of theft per year.

With the drought showing no signs of letting up, California continues to formulate new strategies to preserve as much water as possible. On May 5, the California State Water Resources Control Board adopted an emergency regulation that calls for a 25 percent reduction in overall potable urban water use in accordance with the governor's order.

The emergency regulation will target outdoor water uses such as landscaping, and assign urban water suppliers into eight tiers of conversation standards, ranging from four to 36 percent.

"This is the drought of the century, with greater impact than anything our parents and grandparents experienced, and we have to act accordingly," said Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board in a news release.