Back to the May-Jun 2019 issue

Water Theft: Leaks Aren’t the Only Way to Lose

By Ashley Shiwarski

Providing clean, potable water to your residents isn’t an inexpensive or simple proposition, but many residents don’t understand the process—they turn on the tap, and they have water. Perhaps it’s this lack of knowledge about the process that makes water theft plausible.

A story in the Spring 2018 edition of Breeze, the publication of the Minnesota Section of the American Water Works Association, illustrates how pervasive water theft can be. Rick Wahlen, Eden Prairie manager of utility operations, describes a situation where a family had its backyard pool re-lined, and the pool installer asked the children of the house to hook his hose up to a nearby hydrant to fill the pool.

An attentive neighbor called the police, and they notified the city. When confronting the homeowner, it became apparent that he was not aware that this was illegal or detrimental to the community.

The Damage Caused By Theft

Theft can do a lot of damage—for one, there is a cost associated with producing that water and, when a utility doesn’t recoup the costs for stolen water, that cost must be spread out across those customers who are paying, increasing their bills. Frequently, when businesses or contractors access water without authorization, they open a fire hydrant or tap into a sprinkler system— something that could damage those life-saving systems. Of course, during a drought, when supplies are low, water theft is especially egregious.

Stealing water can also do damage to the meter, while costing quite a lot in lost revenue. A Waynesboro, Virginia, man stole more than 96,000 gallons of water, at a cost of $10,000, The News Virginian reported. Much of it was wasted because he had stolen a water valve from an empty home and installed it in his own meter box poorly, allowing an untold amount of water to simply spill onto the ground.

Theft Methods

Residential customers who are stealing water usually employ a meter jumper—a piece of pipe or hose that replaces a meter. It is usually removed between meter readings and the meter replaced for the reading, resulting in artificially low billing.

This can be prevented by locking meter housings or using meter yokes. Or it can be easily discovered by varying the schedule for meter readings. Running a usage audit can show if a homeowner has a steep drop in gallons used.

Those who can’t afford their bills aren’t the only ones committing water theft. Actor Tom Selleck settled with a California water district for $21,000 in 2015 after a water tanker allegedly filled up at a Calleguas district fire hydrant, then trucked the water to Selleck’s ranch in Westlake, outside the district, according to The Guardian news website.

This happened more than a dozen times over two years, despite a cease-and-desist order. The settlement covered the cost for the private investigator the district hired to produce proof of the theft.

Efforts To Stop Theft

Across the pond, Thames Water, facing unprecedented water losses, has hired detectives to seek out water theft. In a similar vein, West Virginia American Water announced a crackdown last year on those stealing water—particularly those who have damaged water meters and meter housings, are repeat offenders, or threaten employees. The utility announced plans to press charges with local law enforcement officers for stealing utility service.

While some utilities are employing stringent measures to stop theft, some communities have seen success with amnesty—allowing residents to admit their theft and pay for the water but avoid fines. Others have turned to using more modern, tamper-proof meters and hiring regulators to enforce compliance.

Advanced meter infrastructures use real-time data, which can tip utility employees off to sudden changes in usage. And meters that include an accelerometer can alert employees when the meters are removed as it is happening. Your best and most cost-efficient allies in the fight against water theft are your customers. When water is stolen, they subsidize that cost, and you can be sure they’re not happy about it. Tucking a notice about your water theft policy, the cost to ordinary rate payers, and an encouragement to report water theft into their monthly bill is a preemptive measure to fight water theft.

Ashley Shiwarski is senior manager with the NLC Service Line Warranty Program, administered by Utility Service Partners (www.utilitysp.net). The NLC Service Line Warranty Program is a member of the LMC Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).