Wallets are Out, Water is In: Thieves of 2017 Find New Focus

Wrenches, piping, transport trucks, and hoses. These are the tools of thieves in the American West of the Twentieth Century, and stealing televisions, cars, or wallets may not have the appeal it once did for a previous generation. Water, an increasingly in-demand resource, has replaced those quick moneymakers of yesterday as the new liquid gold quickly climbs the ranks as one of the hotbeds of theft activity across the country.

A bizarre incident in October 2016 in the small town of Erie brought to light the situation of water theft in Colorado. Thieves pumped out 100,000 gallons from a rental residence, equivalent to 2000 full bathtubs of water. The rental house owner became aware of her booming water bills after a four-month period of unnoticed automatic payments that were racking up significant charges. Once she realized the issue could be more than just a leaky faucet, she taped off the faucet, removed the handle, and shut off the valve under the house. Someone returned and removed the tape from the faucet, and when nothing came out they moved their efforts elsewhere. The water bill returned to normal charges, and police continue to investigate the issue.

As the United States passed its fifth year of less-than-average precipitation, and California’s third year of a declared drought state of emergency, Americans’ water usage must be monitored much more closely than in previous years. Besides the obvious health-related uses of water, we utilize water in agriculture, energy production, navigation, recreation, and manufacturing fields. Without the close examination of water distribution and usage, the effects of climate change could create real issues for each of these industries. And as the general public begins to become more aware of the scarcity—and thus value—of water, the number of water theft incidents throughout the country have also continued to grow.

In light of the increase of smuggling incidents, The Brookings Institution recently published a report analyzing the phenomenon of water theft across the globe. The report not only compares recent incidents of theft in various countries to identify multiple causes, but it also addresses the problems of defining what is water theft in the context of water as a human right and the various ways different countries approach water as a resource. Ultimately the report’s author calls for a wide range of measures to address the underlying causes behind water theft globally, one of which is stricter monitoring and enforcement in the allocation and use of water rights—while still recognizing that basic access to water for the poor is a necessity. The report suggests that punitive damages would help protect against increasing water scarcity, and a uniform set of laws or regulations could help to solve the issue in the future.

This fundamental disregard of enforcement or creation of laws may be one reason why the United States is starting to see so many of the same types of issues occurring so regularly. Without the uniformity of a system of water management, each local entity or state entity is required to create their own form of regulation and enforcement. As a result of this, the country has seen a variety of issues popping up, especially in places where water scarcity is a fear.

The incident in Erie has been repeated in a myriad of ways, not only in the West, but across the country. In New York for example, a small city’s mayor was accused of stealing water in 2004 by loosening the screws on his meter when he was overusing. In south Atlanta during the month of October in 2015, 160 people faced charges of water theft. All of these incidents involved tampering with the water meter or valves installed in the residence’s water box. One man, caught three times removing his service company issued meter, decided to install a pipe running to his house from his neighbor’s water meter box. The other incidents involved refusing to pay for water, stealing from neighbors, removing meters, or installing joiner pipes to trick the meter from measuring complete water usage.

In California and the Midwest, the drought has contributed to wells drying up. Some people, in response, decide to build a new well or pay to have water delivered by truck. Other people, however, have turned to taking water from neighboring wells that have not gone dry as a much cheaper and easier approach.

In addition to these household, private theft issues, there have also been instances of people stealing from public water sources. In March of 2016 in Boulder, a pair of men who worked for a ditch company had a permit allowing them to divert a certain amount of water for agricultural use. They applied for the permit using their work information, but took the water from the permit by truckload to sell at a complete upcharge to fracking companies. In Washington, water theft from fire hydrants caused loss of an estimated $145 million around the state in July 2016. People would hook up a hose to the hydrant and pump the water into trucks to be transported elsewhere. This is hazardous because hydrants could potentially deplete the water from the reservoirs. Firefighters, unless they are consistently checking the hydrants, would find out they were out of water only when they went to turn the hose on to fight a fire.

As the interest in the cannabis industry grows, so does the need for water by marijuana grow operations. This demand has inspired many water thieves to sell to black market grow houses across the West. These occurrences have taken place around the state, but most recently and most detrimentally, in the San Luis Valley in Colorado during August 2015. According to local officials the majority of the theft was happening in Costilla County, a county that requires grow operations to obtain local permits. The permits require the operators to disclose their water source because these cultivation endeavors require a large amount of water to operate. If grow operations continue to grow without a local permit, finding a source of legally obtained water is not typically economically attainable. In cases where medical or recreational grow operations cannot locate a legal water source, the operation does not typically cease operations, it finds a legally illegitimate water source and continues to operate as an unlicensed entity.

Another reason Costilla County was so popular with water thieves during this time was because of the price of land. Cheap land encouraged those looking to acquire monthly camping or RV permits to move in and “go off the grid”. These outsiders then are required to obtain a water and septic system, and are often unable to find a cheap, legal source of water to supply to their new homesteads. This causes many newcomers to turn to non-legal sources in order to stay in compliance with the county’s rules, a practice causing many of the locals to come into conflict with these new communities. The most prominent ways of stealing water in Costilla County were from private wells, community irrigation ditches, and local streams.

Thieves continue to draw up new ways to steal water from public spaces or neighbors, and there is no sign of it slowing. Thieves caught in the act of pumping from a stream or community water source are only required to obtain a permit in most states, and they can continue to pump without any fines or legal actions taken against them. Many household cases are never solved because water theft recidivism rates for the same source is low once necessary preventative actions are taken by the owner. For those who have a legal permit to use water, it is an issue of monitoring usage. People who do have permits are required to report usage, but in many cases they are trusted with self-policing their usage. This results in the temptation to utilize more water than originally allocated, or to utilize the water for additional operations than originally applied for. The enforcement of punishments is seemingly low across the nation as many water divisions do not completely know when or how to get law enforcement involved. The best thing that cities and individuals can do is take extra steps to prevent theft within their own water rights, and be more proactive in their security initiatives.

There has not been a proven way to completely prevent these kinds of acts of theft besides alerting the community and taking initiative to report any suspicious activity involving water trucks or piping. Victims of water theft have prevented future loss by purchasing bib locks or lock boxes and securing them over openings to wells, meters or any other potential access point to private water sources. Although this may seem excessive to some, it is undisputedly better than opening a water bill for hundreds of dollars more than expected, and subsequently defending your reputation to the court.

These water savvy thieves continue to map out new, complex ways to make a quick buck off water that is not theirs. This issue is heightened now more than ever not only because of the state of drought, but because of the unpredictable affects climate change is on water supplies. Scientists predict the increase in demand of water will come with the decrease of supply and the quality of supply. The recent increase in water thefts only add another unknown variable to a water future that is projected to be more dry and less predictable.


Rebecca Spence

Image: Flickr User ZeroOne, Creative Commons.


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