Extreme and prolonged drought in the American west is prompting water thieves to tap into other people’s scarce supplies.
More than 12bn gallons of water have been stolen in California in the past eight years, according to state officials, but the issue has been further exacerbated by the ongoing drought and recent searing early summer heatwaves.
A significant amount of recent water theft has been blamed by the authorities on illegal cannabis cultivation in some parts of the state.
“Water stealing has never been more severe,” John Nores, head of the California department of fish and wildlife marijuana enforcement team (MET), told CNN.
While the term “water theft” has been disputed by some experts and activists, state officials told the TV news network that examples of recent occurrences have involved “tapping into fire hydrants, rivers and even small family homes and farms”.
They allege that much of the prohibited usage is coming from people who are illegally growing marijuana.
Nores said the issue had had an impact on lawful farmers, Native American tribes and other small communities in California.
It has also affected drinking water sources. Last spring, 300 homes had their water supply threatened when water valves were improperly shut off, according to the Desert Sun newspaper that covers the Palm Springs and Coachella Valley area south-east of Los Angeles.
According to the publication,125 Californians have reported thefts to state authorities so far this year, doubling the number of reports that were made a decade ago, with water supplies under pressure up and down the state and across the whole of the western region.
In recent times, the Sun reported, people in water trucks have been backing up to rivers and lakes and pumping free water not just for their own use but to sell on to an underground market.
Others, under cover of darkness, plug into city hydrants and top up. Some also steal water from homes, farms and private wells.
“As the state enters another potential drought emergency, we need to ensure that this new activity does not further exacerbate water scarcity,” the Los Angeles county supervisor Kathryn Barger told CNN.
While a recent post by the Brookings Institution shows that this has been an issue outside California, in connection to cannabis cultivation in Oregon and Colorado, older posts from the research group also delve into why the term has been deemed controversial.
In 2017, the Brookings Institution noted that news organizations were increasingly highlighting water theft as an issue, but added “water experts, water-focused nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), governments, and communities do not agree whether there is any such a thing as water theft”.
According to the thinktank, the dispute largely stems from opposing beliefs that water is a basic human right that should be accessible and the idea that it should be priced for sustainability and efficient usage.