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

By: Bill Eller

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 the naivety about the process that makes water theft plausible.

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.

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 meter yokes or 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.

Stealing water also can 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, and much of it was 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 into the ground.

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 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, more than a dozen times over two years, ignoring a cease-and-desist order. The settlement covered the cost for the private investigator the district hired to produce proof of the 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 for stealing utility service with local law enforcement officers.

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 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 those with accelerometers can alert employees when the meters are removed as it is happening.

Your best and most cost efficient ally 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 pre-emptive measure to fight water theft.

The NLC Service Line Warranty Program, administered by Utility Service Partners, a HomeServe company, partners with municipalities and utilities to provide service line repair plans to homeowners. Customers with a repair plan are more likely to have a leak fixed more quickly, thereby wasting less water. Through this program, a customer simply makes one phone call to our toll free number 24/7/365 to have a local, insured and licensed plumber promptly dispatched. For more information, please contact us.

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