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Water theft in California heightens state drought concerns

As drought conditions continue to persist in California, state authorities now have to deal with another threat: water theft.

Water has become the unlikely subject of black market dealings in some the California’s worst-hit areas. With nearly 60 percent of the state currently experiencing exceptional drought — the highest level of drought designated by the U.S. Drought Monitor — and chances of a full recovery this winter looking unlikely, reports of water being stolen from private tanks or siphoned from public rivers are increasing.

In one instance, thousands of gallons of water were stolen from a fire station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains — a station that provides protection to the surrounding community and forest from wildfires. In fact, the discovery came at the peak of wildfire season, worrying officials and community members about the dangerous implications of such thefts.

One of the other major culprits in California’s rising water thefts appears to be illegal marijuana cultivation. Particularly in rural areas of Northern California, large scale illegal grow operations have been discovered siphoning billions of gallons of water from nearby rivers and streams. Many of these these sites are operating out of state and national parks, where environmental damage is an additional concern.

In some counties and communities, local authorities have set up hotlines and patrols in an attempt to prevent water theft. Punishments vary, but often range from mere misdemeanor charges to fines of $25. Even still, it is difficult to identify thieves without catching them in the act.

Recently, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California, announced the U.S. Sentencing Committee had finalized the guidelines for the Protecting Lands Against Narcotics Trafficking Act. Huffman introduced the bill last year in an effort to increase the punishment for those creating trespass marijuana grow sites.

“Especially this year, the worst drought year California has ever seen, it’s more important than ever to crack down on water theft,” Rep. Huffman told NBC Bay Area.

Huffman represents California’s northernmost district, where illegal sites are a particular problem. While cultivation of illegal drugs on federal land is already illegal, the new guidelines — which took effect Nov. 1 — will count environmental damage such as water diversion and the removal of vegetation as criminal offenses.

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