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Wild, Wild West: Why Water Theft is Now Rampant in California

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As an unrelenting drought torments California’s farmers, many of them are now dealing with an additional concern: water theft.

With water increasingly scarce in California in recent months, thieves have stolen several millions of gallons from rivers, fire hydrants, farms, and even family homes. According to multiple reports, thieves are often using stolen water to cultivate illegal marijuana crops.

“The desert is an ideal area for privacy for these [illegal marijuana] growers, but it lacks water,” Jan Gould, the CEO of Responsive Drip Irrigation, told The Food Institute. “ … Whenever a commodity becomes scarcer, then it becomes worth stealing.

“Law enforcement has increased sheriff patrols, engaged the use of drones and satellite imagery, and increased security measures and lockets for water stations. However, farmers are ideal targets, since they’re remote and may not have these security capabilities in place.”


Water theft has been an issue at length in California, but this year’s intensifying drought has driven the thefts to record levels as reservoirs dry up, reported CNN (July 27). Officials say thieves are getting their hands on water by breaking into secure water stations, drilling into water lines, tapping into fire hydrants, as well as using violence and threats against farmers, making off with truckloads of water at night.

In a recent sting in Antelope Valley in Los Angeles County, law enforcement officials disrupted hundreds of illegal marijuana cultivations in the area, arresting 131 people and seizing 65 vehicles, including two water trucks. Authorities recovered 33,480 pounds of marijuana and dozens of firearms, according to the Washington Post (July 28). Nineteen people were charged with water theft.

“Most Californians would be shocked and disappointed at the amount of water these unlicensed, illegal grows are using,” Curt Fallin, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s associate special agent in charge, said in a recent press release. “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,” Fallin said.


By all accounts, the water thefts won’t be stopped any time soon. Gould told The Food Institute farmers will likely need to spend on additional security measures to keep thieves at bay.

“Camera monitoring and remote alarm systems that alert authorities that water is being pulled from the system could help,” Gould said. “There are water flow meters that measure water usage; If the meter registers water being extracted, an alert can be sent to the farmer via a cellular alert who can then alert the local authorities.”