Madera County sits smack in the middle of the state, and it's mostly farms. As in many parts of the Valley, wells have gone dry here and water prices have soared. Thieves, who've been increasingly targeting rural farms, are starting to understand that anything water-related is a potential bonanza.
"They’re taking the water hoses, taking the copper wiring," says the county’s District Attorney, David Linn. "We’ve even had instances where they’ve come in and stolen the water pumps from the farmers."
Linn has recently launched a new task force so rural residents and farmers can reach a deputy district attorney 24-7 to report crime, including illegal well drilling.
Linn says a hypothetical call might be, “You know over the past two weeks, the water flow on my kitchen sink has continued to decrease. I notice there’s a couple of big drill rigs across the road, looks like they’re very active."
An investigator could come out and talk with the well driller to make sure they’re drilling where they should be.
“We want to stop the wholesale planned attempt by water drillers to essentially tap out entire neighborhoods of homes without proper legal authority,” says Linn.
If water is siphoned out of a storage tank, or a water pump goes missing, the DA’s office could dispatch investigators to the scene to collect evidence for prosecution.
Under last year's landmark groundwater law, local officials will be taking on the primary responsibility for managing groundwater and enforcing new rules.
The Madera County Task Force also plans to educate farmers about the best kinds of fences and tank enclosures to keep out water thieves.
Officials in urban areas are grappling with similar worries: water robbers pilfering fire hydrants, water delivery trucks taking water to which they're not entitled, or people tapping into water lines at construction sites.
The Contra Costa Water District has increased fines for stealing water from $25 to $250 for a first offense and $500 for subsequent offenses. An official at the East Bay Municipal Utility District says that agency will be "cracking down" on water theft and plans to enact new penalties as part of a drought emergency plan expected next week.