Crime

Reports of Willits Water Theft Rehashes Enforcement Dilemma- Stealing Water Is a Low-Level Offense

On the afternoon of July 25, 2021, Mendocino County Sheriff deputies and Fish and Wildlife officers responded to Bechtel Creek in Willits regarding reports of two men pumping water out of the waterway.

The reporting party described the suspects as two men filling multiple water tanks in an unmarked truck with no plates.

MCSO’s Public Information Officer Captain Greg Van Patten told us the suspects were not located but the responding deputies found the location where the water theft likely took place a one-quarter mile from Williams Ranch Road on Muir Mill Road in a roadside turnout.

Captain Van Patten addressed the California Penal Code deficits that hinder the community’s ability to address these sorts of water thieves saying, “[A] whole water truck of stolen water from a hydrant would only amount to a citation (low-grade misdemeanor). He did suggest that, “taking it from a creek might be [a] higher environmental crime through Fish and Wildlife rules although.”

On Wednesday, June 9, Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster told the Board of Supervisors, “We have tried to take criminal enforcement against water theft” but “criminal penalties at the state level are so low there is literally no bang for the buck.” During that meeting, DA Eyster suggested the county “join a lobbying effort in Sacramento” to “seek more hefty punishment for people stealing water.”

In 2015, the tiny town of Miranda, successfully (with the help of stories in Redheaded Blackbelt), pushed a construction company accused of water theft from their hydrants to provide an undisclosed sum in reparations

In addition, Garberville, a town near Miranda, then passed a new ordinance that states anyone caught stealing water or tampering with their system could be fined $10,000. According to Doug Bryan, Vice Chair of the Garberville Service District at the time, “I suggested the $10,000 penalty amount for illegal taking of water from GSD because…I wanted the penalty to be greater than the amount someone could make by selling the water.”

Mendocino County is bound to fall further victim to water thieves as the aquifers dry out and the drought deepens. On July 11, the Rogina Water Company serving customers on the east side of the Ukiah Valley reported a white Toyota Tundra was caught “taking water from a hydrant on Tindall Ranch Road.” They asked if any residents have information to please “notify us immediately.”

Captain Van Patten asks that if any Mendocino County resident sees water theft in action to report it by calling (707) 463-4086, write down the vehicle description, license plate, and suspects’ description. He said photos of the situation would help for investigative purposes.

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