This story was originally published by CalMatters and is republished here by permission.
One day last spring, water pressure in pipelines suddenly crashed in California’s Antelope Valley, setting off alarms. Demand had inexplicably spiked, swelling to three and half times normal. Water mains broke open, and storage tanks were drawn down to dangerous levels.
The emergency was so dire in the water-stressed desert area of Hi Vista, between Los Angeles and Mojave, that county health officials considered ordering residents to boil their tap water before drinking it.
“We said, ‘Holy cow, what’s happening?’” said Anish Saraiya, public works deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger.
It took a while for officials to figure out where all that water was going: Water thieves — likely working for illicit marijuana operations — had pulled water from remote filling stations and tapped into fire hydrants, improperly shutting off valves and triggering a chain reaction that threatened the water supply of nearly 300 homes.
As drought grips most of California, water thievery across the state has increased to record levels. Bandits in water trucks are backing up to rivers and lakes and pumping free water they sell on a burgeoning black market. Others, under cover of darkness, plug into city hydrants and top up. Thieves also steal water from homes, farms and private wells, and some even created an elaborate system of dams, reservoirs and pipelines during the last drought. Others are MacGyvering break-ins directly into pressurized water mains, a dangerous and destructive approach known as hot-tapping.
In Mendocino County, the thefts from rivers and streams are compromising already depleted Russian River waterways. In one water district there, thefts from hydrants could compromise a limited water supply for fighting fires, which is why they have put locks on hydrants.
“Any way that you can imagine that somebody is going to grab water, they’re doing it.”
“Any way that you can imagine that somebody is going to grab water, they’re doing it,” said Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall. “For goodness sakes, everybody knows what is going on.”
It’s as predictable as a dreary economics lesson: When a commodity becomes scarce and demand soars, it’s worth stealing.
Officials say water thefts are increasing at about the same rate as the decline in California’s water supplies. Complaints have risen sharply this year, mirroring the drought’s inexorable advance.
Halfway through this year, 125 Californians have reported thefts to state authorities, more than twice as many as a decade ago. Those numbers don’t capture calls to local officials or small water districts that shoulder the bulk of enforcement responsibility.
The water thefts not only strain police agencies but also damage valuable equipment. In the Antelope Valley, water main breaks, which can cost $10,000 each to repair, had been averaging about two a year. In the past year, there have been a dozen, Saraiya said.
Water users are now proactively protecting their supplies. Many fire hydrants are being locked or removed altogether. Water tank owners have installed security cameras. In rural areas, residents who have no access to municipal water systems and rely on key-activated water stations are finding their critical lifelines are shut down because of incessant tampering. A robust black market for the keys has popped up, and now most stations operate only during daylight hours.
In the Antelope Valley city of Lancaster, impound yards are hosting growing collections of confiscated water trucks. In one area, fire authorities removed 100 of the area’s 176 hydrants deemed not essential to public safety. Remaining hydrants were fitted with locks.
No cache of water is safe. During the last major drought, businesses, schools and even a fire station were victims of water theft. In 2014, thieves pumped water from storage tanks belonging to the North San Juan Fire Protection District in Nevada County, in the mountains northeast of Sacramento.
“I came to the station one morning and there was a big wet spot,” said Boyd Johnson, the district’s former battalion chief. He said the water was taken for several weeks until they locked the system. “We share that water with CalFire, and, obviously, water was critical to firefighting.”
California’s water and weed
The most-common culprit of water theft: illegal pot farms. While farmers, ranchers and licensed marijuana growers scramble to obtain water through legal channels, clandestine operations are stealing it or purchasing it from illicit trucks.
In the Sierra Nevada, as many as 4,000 illegal grow sites are operating in Nevada County, according to county estimates. In the Antelope Valley, illegal grows have doubled from 200 last year to 400 today, according to county data, while other estimates put the number in the thousands.
While the vast desert affords a degree of privacy to pot operations, it lacks a critical component to growing things: water. One cannabis farmer near Lancaster bought a house simply to run a garden hose across the desert to his illegal grow site. Officials shut off the line, but the ever-resourceful thieves tapped into another underground line and kept watering their plants.
Marijuana is not a particularly thirsty crop — using about the same amount of water as a tomato plant — but the drought’s severity means that even a modest water diversion can have impacts.
“Most Californians would be shocked and disappointed at the amount of water these unlicensed, illegal grows are using, especially as California suffers from a drought,” Curt Fallin, a federal Drug Enforcement Agency agent, said during a recent news conference. “By our calculation, the illegal grows in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties require an astounding 5.4 million gallons of water a day, every day.”
That’s enough water for 72,000 people, almost half the population of Lancaster, which is so water-short that the city imposed temporary restrictions on lawn sprinklers last month.
In far northern, mountainous Siskiyou County — which is facing extreme drought conditions this year — sheriffs estimated that during the last drought, illegal pot sites consumed two million gallons of water a day. That would supply three-quarters of the county’s residents today.
With climate change driving longer and more severe droughts around the globe, researchers last year estimated that as much as half the world’s water supply is being stolen every year, citing statistics gathered by the United Nations and Interpol in Europe.
Whack-a-mole in the Mojave
On a recent hot July day, Charles Bostwick, an assistant field deputy for county Supervisor Barger, piloted his Jeep down mile after mile of dusty roads in the Antelope Valley, past dozens of cannabis grow sites.
Stark white “hoop houses” rise from the flat desert floor. When lit at night, the compounds cast an eerie glow. Operators make little effort to hide the sites, which are littered with trash baking in the Mojave Desert sun and guarded by armed men. Scattered along the road to one site was a porcelain toilet, plastic chairs and a coiled garden hose. Bulldozed Joshua trees lay in haphazard piles. The fender…