Water theft is a growing concern in California, with illegal cannabis cultivators one of the main contributors to water scarcity. In the midst of a severe drought, illegal growers have been siphoning water from fire hydrants, drilling unauthorized water wells, breaking into secure water stations and drilling into water lines. The diversion of water can threaten supply to hundreds of local residents’ homes, particularly when water valves are improperly shut off, and can cause tens of thousands of dollars of damage.
A recent sting in Antelope Valley, Los Angeles, saw the seizure of two water trucks and 19 individuals charged with water theft. According to Curt Fallin, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent, the water used by illegal cannabis grow operations in Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino has been estimated at approximately 5.4 million gallons of water per day. Water theft by illegal growers, however, is not a new phenomenon. As the number of illegal growers explodes, so too does illicit water use.
In 2020, the Narcotics Bureau identified 150 illegal outdoor operations in the Antelope Valley. In 2021, more than 500 illegal grow sites were found during reconnaissance flights. Scientists have also found that the state’s main watersheds are losing water rapidly due to unlawful cannabis cultivation. The plundering of water from watersheds additionally represents a source of potential damage and strain to fragile ecosystems already pressured by unprecedented droughts. Many protected species, such as Chinook salmon and steelhead trout, inhabit the watersheds. In one recent raid of illegal grow sites, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Marijuana Enforcement Team found about 100 environmental violations and juvenile fish in dammed pools in the watersheds where water was being illegally pumped.