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Water Kleptos Are the Bleakest Part of California’s Drought

As record-breaking drought conditions persist in California, state officials are dealing with an unusual consequence of the lack of rainfall: water theft.
November 13, 2014, 9:30pm
Photo via Flickr user

As record-breaking drought conditions persist in California—straining agricultural production, contributing to rising food prices, and killing off prized salmon—officials in the state are dealing with an unusual consequence of the prolonged lack of rainfall: water theft.

But if you find the concept of thirsty kleptos stealing something that's (theoretically) free and heavy as shit perplexing, you're not alone.

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In recent days, media outlets have reported on black market-like conditions that now surround water in California. In August, in Mendocino County, a sheriff's deputy caught a man who had outfitted his truck with a water tank, stolen water from a nearby canal, and indicated that he intended to sell it to the highest bidder. In the same month, in Nevada County, thieves drove right up to the North San Juan fire station and hooked pumps up to the station's water supply, making off with thousands of gallons. In the bone-dry Wild West, not even schools are safe: In July, Grizzly High School principal James Berardi told local press that weekend and evening raids on his school's two wells had drained them so much that he had to shut them down.

Such incidents of clandestine attacks on private water supplies make for good headlines. But an even bigger issue in California is water diversion, when individuals steal massive amounts of water from natural bodies of water. As the levels of already-draining streams and lakes dip dangerously, employees of the state's water boards have increasingly had to deal with criminals who are siphoning off the precious liquid for use on their farms and, especially, on their illegal weed-growing operations.

"We're definitely burning the midnight oil to respond to the drought," said Chris Carrigan, director of the Office of Enforcement at California's State Water Resources Control Board. Carrigan heads up a team of 22 employees tasked with the formidable challenge of dealing with violations of water quality and water supply. Since the drought began, Carrigan told me, he and his team have increasingly had to focus their attentions on the latter.

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"Without a doubt, we've definitely had to shift our resources," he said.

Carrigan explained that while small-scale private theft of water is a concern in California, it's these large-scale diversions that have a measurable impact on the state's ecology—particularly on its highly-prized salmon populations. The fish are extremely vulnerable at this time of year due to farmers' late-summer siphoning of water for their crops.

"For agricultural purposes, the need to divert water ramps up during the harvest season, so [the salmon] suffer in the early fall," he said. "That's when stream flows are the lowest, because it's rained very little. So when flows dry up, there's not enough water for fish to swim or live in."

"All of those things have been affected by the drought and the proliferation of diversions," Carrigan continued. "It's had a pretty dramatic affect on the species. We need to really emphasize the high value of watersheds for these endangered species, and make sure they're being protected."

Unsurprisingly, some of the biggest risk-takers involved in water diversion have been illegal weed growers, many of them located in Northern California's "Emerald Triangle" of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties. Pot cultivation in the area has doubled over the past five years, and growers' water diversion—along with their use of intensive chemical fertilizers—is likely a huge contributing factor to the rapid decline of native steelhead trout and Coho salmon.

"I've seen several cases involving diversions with ramshackle plastic structures built in flowing streams with no screening on it that was diverting thousands of gallons per hour to supply cannabis cultivation," Carrigan said. "We found endangered salmon being sucked into the funnel, out of the stream. Fish and Wildlife videotaped that before shutting it down. It was a particularly horrific sight. So yeah, we've been investigating and are in the process of prosecuting several very large-scale diversions that were unauthorized."

The drought shows no signs of ending anytime soon, and Carrigan said he worries that large-scale water theft will continue apace. But he's hopeful that lessons learned during the early days of the drought will help carry him and his team through what's to come.

"I do see the challenges to the agencies and the water boards, and they are going to get bigger before they get better," he said. "But I think that in the first two years of the drought, we learned a lot about how to react to it. There's a good chance that there will be unforeseen problems that we'll run into, but we're on the right track."