With rising water prices, consumers are seeking more ways to obtain a free water supply. For water utility companies on tight budgets, this cost is passed on to paying customers. Excellent proof must be available before water thieves can be accused.
It is frequently not poor people who avoid paying for their water. Even mayors and pastors have been found guilty of water theft. One mayor had taken the dial off his meter back when they were attached with a single screw, but he was caught by the meter reader. A youth pastor in Medford, Oregon faced six criminal misdemeanor charges and pleaded guilty to using unauthorized water without a permit for diverting water to his property into three ponds.
In Lake Peekskill, New York about 60 miles north of New York City, the median household income is double the national average. Almost 200 residents there were caught stealing water. The area was a summer home for wealthy New Yorkers escaping the city heat. It had an old seasonal water system with water quality and supply problems. Not enough residents were paying for water to keep the system functioning.
New meters are built now so the meter would have to be removed from the setter and taken apart to access the dial. Individuals may still turn water back on after the utility has turned off the meter for nonpayment. Sometimes when a meter has been removed by the utility company, someone will plumb a pipe in the meter box. Also, a construction crew or farmer may use an unmetered fire hydrant to obtain water without approval from the utility. A business may use an unmetered supply to their fire sprinkler system. Some people plumb unmetered water lines off a sprinkler supply for process or domestic uses.
Some steps being taken to combat water theft include:
- Locked meter housing, the best deterrent. Meters should be as inaccessible as possible. Meter and meter housing manufacturers can advise how to properly secure their equipment. Many manufacturers sell anti-tampering devices.
- Meter readers are being familiarized with meter settings and doing spot checks of equipment to locate tampered meters.
- Meters are being read monthly, not quarterly.
- The billing department and office employees are being trained to spot red flag water usage and how to report it.
- Usage rates are more carefully monitored. When water usage drops from 6,000 gallons a month to 1,000 gallons, someone physically inspects the suspect water meter.
- People do not consider stealing water as really stealing. Customers are being informed by letter that water theft is a violation of the law and violators will be prosecuted.
- Water departments are listing fees for each water theft infraction on their websites. Water theft is a serious offense and can result in significant fines, as well as criminal or civil prosecution. In addition to any penalties, customers caught stealing water are being charged for the water they used through an estimated calculation.
- Paying customers are being forced to pay for the water of non-paying customers to keep the water utility company functioning. Simple reporting methods of known offenders by neighbors, family members, and the general public have been made available.
- Legal advice is being sought from local magistrates or other law enforcement agencies for proper handling of discovered water theft so the guilty can be prosecuted.
- The National Drinking Water Clearinghouse, 800.624.8301, is providing contact information for state rural water associations.
The attached video shows the severity of water theft from the utility company in Detroit and the crackdown the city water department was forced to do. There is assistance available for those who cannot afford to pay their water bills.