Water theft on the rise as drought continues

in July 28th, 2021

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When supply is limited, demand rises — and water is no exception. As the American West continues grappling with severe drought, water thieves in California are profiting off water stolen from just about every source imaginable.

  • Some are pumping water from rivers and lakes. And despite LA County allocating $250K to enhanced patrolling, the thieves are already finding ways to avoid getting caught, such as using U-Haul trucks to mask their identity.
  • Others are tapping into fire hydrants, a process that threatens water supply for the nearby homes due to improper valve shut-off. In one city, authorities had to remove 100 of the area’s 176 hydrants and put locks on the rest.
  • And most dangerous of all is hot-tapping, a destructive approach that requires breaking directly into pressurized water mains. Antelope Valley has had to repair twelve water main breaks in the past year as a result, each one costing $10,000.

Where is the water going? Sold on the black market, this water most often ends up on illegal marijuana farms set up in the desert, which is great for privacy but requires a higher amount of water for crops. In fact, illegal growers across three Southern California counties alone consumes 5.4 million gallons of water every day — that’s enough water for 72,000 people.

Well, why aren’t the farms just shut down? After California legalized recreational marijuana use for adults three years ago, it reduced penalties for pot farms from a felony to a misdemeanor. As a lower-level crime, it's less likely to be prosecuted. Meanwhile, anyone witnessing the water theft (or with information, such as local governance) are too afraid to report it after being threatened to keep quiet or by seeing the armed guards protecting the entire operation.


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