National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
PO Box 6893
You'd Be Surprised Who's Stealing Your Water
By Jamie Knotts • NDWC Contributing Writer with photos by Julie Black • Graphic Designer
With rates on the rise in many communities, some drinking water customers use their knowledge of how to bypass a water meter to get a free supply. While it might be a benefit for the customer to avoid a water bill, it’s certainly not good for the utility trying to provide services on a tight budget. A non-paying customer is a customer that hurts the utility’s bottom line and other customers in the long run. Some utility workers know it’s going on. Others suspect it, but know they need proof before accusing someone. Stealing water is a touchy subject, and it’s not a good idea to accuse a customer of water theft unless you’ve caught them red handed.
If the Mayor Can Do It, So Can You
Larry Rader has worked for more than 25 years in the water industry (including several as a circuit rider) and knows what customers are capable of doing. In his very first job, Rader caught the town mayor pilfering water.
“Back then, with the type of meter we were using, you could remove the dial just by loosening one screw,” Rader explains. “The dial would come off and water would continue to flow through the meter, but of course it wasn’t registering.” Rader says that he had earlier approached the mayor about the ease by which customers could bypass the meter with simple tools like a screwdriver—or a hammer.
The mayor’s response? “Well, we’ll make a decision about that sometime.” Rader says that in the following month, he read the mayor’s meter a little bit earlier than he normally did. What he found wasn’t surprising. “He had taken the dial off,” Rader says. “We later went with a meter that couldn’t be tampered with.”
Rader says that since then, meters have been updated to discourage such tampering. “All the meters now are basically sealed,” Rader says. “Meters are built so that you would have to take the meter out of the setter and take it apart to get to the dial. But I’m certain that there are thousands of those old meters still underground, because people don’t tend to pay much attention to their meters when they’re out of sight.”
Just how do you steal water?
Steve Wyatt, a utility operations consultant with Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service, provides cities and towns across the state with help finding practical solutions to their problems. He’s seen four different ways that people can filch water from a utility.
“The utility has turned off the meter for nonpayment or some other reason and an individual turns it back on,” a method Wyatt says is common. “Another way is that the utility has removed the meter and someone plumbs a pipe in the meter box to obtain water. In the third way, a construction crew or farmer uses an un-metered fire hydrant to obtain water with knowledge or approval from the utility.” Lastly, Wyatt says a business has an un-metered supply to the fire sprinkler system within their site. “Someone plumbs water lines off the sprinkler supply for process or domestic use,” he says. “These taps are then not metered, due to the fact the sprinkler line is not metered.”
Rader says that from his experience, most of the people he’s caught swiping water have done it within the meter setter itself. “In 99 percent of the cases, they will turn the water off, take the meter out and put in a length of pipe the same length of the meter and then turn the water back on. It’s called a meter jumper. You can buy them if you were testing water meters and you want to take a meter out and test it.
Photo Caption: Bypassing a water meter isn't complicated. This photo shows a cheater pipe (top) replacing the meter in the meter setter. In the bottom part of this meter well, is a typical 5/8th-inch residential meter. (Photo coordinated by the Morgantown Utility Board.)
“People also cobble up their own jumpers,” he says. “They usually leak, and they’re not very good, but it allows them to get water for free. If they know what time the people read the meter each month, then they can allow a few days after the meter is read, turn the meter off, put the jumper in place of the meter, run it for a few weeks, and replace the meter before it is read again.”
With the work involved in stealing water, some would think it’s not worth the hassle. But Rader says when you consider that many water and sewer bills are tied together and the sewer bill is determined by how much water a customer uses, then there’s more financial incentive to fleece the system. “I average paying $68 a month, so there are a lot of people that will go to that trouble to save $40 or $50 a month,” Rader says.
Detection and Deterrence Is Simple
The utility’s billing department water use tracking is often the best way to spot a thief. “If you have a customer going along using 5,000 gallons a month and suddenly usage drops to 1,000 or 1,500 gallons for a month or two, then maybe you should test the meter to see if it’s running slow,” Rader says. “If the meter tests okay, then you have a pretty good indication that the customer has been in the [meter] housing doing something.” He suggests using a lock on the meter setter to keep the water from being turned off, making it more difficult to bypass the meter.
Notify Customers About Water Theft Policy
A great way to alert customers that your utility takes water theft seriously is to include a simple policy statement in customers’ bills. The statement below, adapted from the Boston (Massachusetts) Water and Sewer Commission’s Web site, could be included in your next customer mailing. Here's a sample letter:
The Smallville Water Company is pleased to provide you with high quality water at the lowest possible cost. People using water illegally—such as using unmetered water—not only denies the water system money each year but also imposes costs on other paying customers. The following outlines
what you can do to assist us in locating water theft.
The following conditions may cause us to be suspicious that water theft is occurring at a property:
• Meter readings that are lower than the history for previous readings;
• Low consumption based on knowledge of average water consumption; and
• Refusing to allow meter readers to access a property to obtain an actual reading.
Water theft by property owners 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 will be charged for the water they used through an estimated calculation.
Water theft has a negative effect on all Smallville Water Company customers. We appreciate your assistance in locating illegal connections. We encourage rental property tenants to report any signs of water theft. If you are aware of water theft taking place in a property, or are suspicious that water theft may be occurring, please contact us at (555) 555-5555.
The systems Rader has worked with don’t usually use anti-tampering devices until they run into a situation where they know a customer is stealing water. “When systems spot a problem, they should take steps to lock the meter up,” he says. “Within the meter box there is a meter yoke or meter setter where the meter actually sits in the yoke. Most, if not all yokes, are capable of being locked in a way that you can turn the water on and lock the meter so they can’t turn the water off. If they can’t turn the water off to the meter, then they can’t take the meter out.” If they were to try bypassing the locked yoke, water would flood the meter housing, making it a much more complex job.
“If I suspected that a customer was stealing water, I would lock the meter and see if that usage continued,” Rader says. “It might be quite possible that the customer found a leak in the house and fixed it. You don’t just arbitrarily knock on the door and ask if they’ve been stealing water. There are some ways to verify that. Once you lock the meter housing, the customer can’t tamper with it. If the low usage continues, then obviously he’s repaired a leak somewhere in the house.”
Rader says that while there are cases where people will tap into the line prior to the meter, it’s a less common practice because there is a lot more work involved. “You’ve got to dig the line up and make a tap without turning the water off. That gets you real wet, and, of course, it’s very obvious. The easiest way for a customer to steal water is to actually do it through the meter by using a jumper or pulling the dial off if you have that type of meter. Or, they can try some way to disable the meter.”
What legal options do systems have?
In many states, it’s illegal to tamper with a public utility. In fact, in West Virginia, it’s a crime to take the lid off the meter. “It is a public utility, and that meter is owned by the utility,” Rader says. He recalls that in one blatant example of water theft, the system took the customer to magistrate court. He and the system operator went to read the meter and found a jumper in place. “The customer did it [stole water] and dared us to stop him,” Rader says.
“Everyone resents paying for drinking water because they believe that it’s free and that they shouldn’t have to pay for it. They think that their rates are too high. Because the wastewater fees are attached to the drinking water usage, that water meter becomes a point of contention with many homeowners.”
Many drinking water systems develop a policy clearly stating the penalties for stealing water. The Memphis (Tennessee) Light, Gas, and Water Division lists fees for each infraction on their Web site. Under the section “Charges Resulting From Customer Tampering, Damaging and/or Stealing Water” the utility outlines fees for:
• Removal of irregular connection to prevent illegal usage where a water meter has been removed;
• Removal of water meter to prevent illegal usage and reinstallation of water meter;
• Illegal turn on by customer;
• Lock off meter with stop cock locking device; and
• Investigative fee where theft of service has been confirmed.
Rader says that for practical reasons, he would suggest an incremental fine or penalty system. “You’d have to do something like $50 for the first offence, $250 for a second offense, and $500 for the third offense,” he says. “It’s really hard to prove, unless you actually find that jumper.
“ I’ve had people say ‘I didn’t put that jumper in there. I don’t know how that got there.’ Then it becomes the burden of the system to prove that the person actually did all these things,” he says. “And that becomes almost impossible. Sometimes they would just break a meter by opening the meter housing and literally just break the meter with a hammer. If they break the dial so that it doesn’t work, the water continues to flow. When you approach them, they say ‘I have no idea how that happened.’ And, although you know they are lying, there’s no way to prove it.”
In situations where a system can document that a customer has used more water than he or she has paid for, Rader suggests that the customer’s bill be estimated for the amount of water used. “If you’ve got past the almost impossible task of proving that they’ve done this, then it’s relatively easy to go back and show the customer that they’ve always used 5,000 gallons, so you’re going to charge them for that amount.”
Unmetered Systems, Forgotten Lines, and Good Friends
For systems that do not have meters, Rader says they likely face fewer cases of water theft. He says that making a tap into a pressurized line deters most would-be thieves. “Considering that you’re usually working with a 3/4-inch line that is likely PVC, to actually make a tap into a line without turning the line off is extremely difficult,” he says, because you’re always fighting the water pressure.
“I have seen cases, though, where people made a tap on a pressurized line ahead of a meter that had been there for so long no one knew it existed,” Rader says. He says he’s known of families moving a house trailer onto a property for another family member and then running a pipe from the older house to the newer one. “They made a tap ahead of the meter to furnish water to the trailer. It had been there for so long it had been forgotten about until there was a leak.
And then there’s the problem of utility workers helping their buddies get free water. “People get free water with the permission from the water company all the time,” Rader says. “They have friends who work for the water company, and they need a tap, so the worker will install it. You’re dealing with people, and if you’re running a little rural water system and you’ve got a buddy that needs free water, and you can arrange it, then that’s not uncommon.”
It’s Not Just the Poor Who Pilfer
Some might think that the poorest customers in town are the ones more likely to install an illegal tap and get free water, but that’s often not the case. Rader agrees that those most able to afford water are often more likely to steal it. “There’s always a certain number of people who will try to find a way around paying their bill,” he says.
“And it’s not necessarily the folks in town who don’t have money. The argument is always made that people on fixed incomes are the ones stealing water, but I’ve never had a person on a fixed income who was late in paying their bills. In my experience, it’s the people making $60,000 or $70,000. A lot of the times they were the ones that tried to find a way around paying for the water, as my mayor did.”
In the small community of Lake Peekskill, New York, where the median household income is double the national average, nearly 200 residents were caught stealing water from the struggling drinking water system. Located roughly 60 miles north of New York City, the area served as a summer home for wealthy New Yorkers looking to beat the city heat. The area evolved into a year-round community with homes on very small plots of land. Served by an aging seasonal water system plagued with water quality and supply problems, residents weren’t paying for water at a time when the system most needed the cash to stay afloat, according to the local newspaper, the Putnam County News and Recorder.
Although the community has 1,024 homes, only 114 had officially signed on for water service and were paying the yearly $250 service fee. Costs to run the system averaged $130,000 to $140,000 per year, but income generated from residents came to only $28,500. The remaining debt was absorbed by the 910 homes through property taxes, even though they didn’t get water from the system. On top of this problem came news from the New York City (the town’s water supplier) that actual water usage was far higher than estimates.
Town officials immediately thought they had a major leak on their hands. At a cost of $17,000, water board members hired a leak detection service to check the system, going house-to-house and meter-to-meter. What they found was staggering: More than 200 residents were using water illegally.
Lake Peekskill Councilman Peter Kennedy and other members were angered that residents were skirting their water bills. “People need to be held responsible for their actions,” Kennedy told the local newspaper. “The district could recover $450,000 if the 200 plus violators pay a fine of $250 each. There is no way we can turn a blind eye on this. We need to deal with this.”
As a result of the incident, the council realized they needed an ordinance that would give them more legal leverage to go after illegal users. In addition to fines, the new ordinance gives council flexibility to enforce regulations quickly, rather than waiting for criminal penalties to work their way through the system. The new law allows them to assess a civil penalty of $250 to $500, plus the amount of the current year’s usage rate for violations. The district can also pursue criminal penalties punishable by fine of an additional $250
to $500 and/or 15 days in jail.
Don’t Mess with the Ex
For the small town of Mystic, Iowa, an anonymous tip was the key to tracking down a water thief among the town’s 588 residents. City Clerk Rosann Barbaglia says that the town might not have known about an illegal connection were it not for a woman who ratted on her ex-boyfriend.
“We had a man who was running a bypass that was underneath the house,” says Barbaglia. “He bypassed the outside meter and hydrants to supply water to two houses he owned—one he was living in and one he was renting out. We found it in both of them.”
While town officials weren’t certain how long the theft had gone on, Barbaglia says, they assumed it began soon after he moved to town from California. “He lived in the one house for two to three years and then he bought the other house.” Once discovered, the sheriff’s department showed up on his doorstep to investigate.
“He had to appear in magistrate court,” she says. “He admitted guilt because he had no other choice. The evidence was there.” Barbaglia says that the town has an ordinance on the books that addresses water theft. “After the sheriff went to his house, we shut him off for a while. It was probably off a week to two weeks until he decided to pay the bill, admit it, and make arrangements to pay the bill over time.”
Town leaders discussed the case and decided what restitution the man had to pay. “We made him put a meter pit in at each house at his cost and then he had to pay $500 at each house for the water,” she says. “Council discussed it and chose $500 because we didn’t know how much he used. He could have watered lawns or gardens or washed cars.”
Once news broke about the incident, Barbaglia says residents didn’t think favorably about the theft. “In a small town everybody knows about it. They think that it’s right that you need to pay for what you get. They know that their bill could be in-creased to cover the loss that we suffer. We’re always happy when we can find something like this so that we can keep costs down for everyone. We haven’t raised our rates for 21 years.”
Drought Brings out Water Thieves
Mention the words “stealing water” to an owner of water rights in the western states and you’ve got a testy situation on your hands. Those who own water rights zealously guard their privilege to use the water in the face of growing agricultural, population, and environmental demands. Farm-ers, people, and wildlife all need water. But who gets that water can be contentious in the West.
Western water rights are based on Prior Appropriation, which generally operates on the “first in time, first in right” principle. The first or prior user’s rights are superior to later-arising uses, regardless of scarcity or social benefits. Users typically acquire rights from the state to withdraw and consume water, and even in times of drought, may continue to do so at the expense of subsequent users.
Oops, I Didn’t Know it Wasn’t Mine
With seasonal droughts hitting record levels throughout the West, locals are seeing incidents of illegal water use on the rise. In some cases, it’s a simple matter of a landowner not realizing that someone else’s right to use the water supercedes his or her rights.
In Medford, Oregon, a youth pastor pleaded guilty to using unauthorized water without a permit, according to a story published by U.S. Water News Online. Pastor Gary Harrington faced six criminal misdemeanor charges but entered the guilty plea on two charges in return for having the others dropped. Authorities accused him of diverting water into three ponds on his property.
“A lot of people have the misconception that they automatically have the right to use that water [on their property], and that’s not the case in the state of Oregon,” says Larry Menteer, Jackson County watermaster.
Menteer says that the county’s code-enforcement officers discovered that Harrington didn’t have the proper permits for the ponds. Harrington refused to allow Oregon State Police or the county watermaster on his property to inspect the ponds, so troopers issued the citations after serving Harrington with a search warrant.
Harrington told authorities that he pleaded guilty so he could apply for water rights to his 172 acres. He maintained the ponds fed by winter runoff were for fire protection. He said his youth group also swam in the ponds.
Thefts Hurt Farmers, Water Rights Owners
A more pressing problem than un-knowingly using water is outright theft in the West.
According to an Associated Press article, illegal water use on the West Gallatin River near Bozeman, Montana, is widespread and hurting farmers downstream who own water rights and depend on water for irrigation.
Drought and thefts have shrunk the river so much that legal water rights have been cut back sharply, limiting amounts that legal rights holders can draw.
Stories of people illegally drawing from the river, at the expense of those who hold legitimate water rights, have become so common that officials now scout the river to find violators. District Court Judge Mark Guenther authorized Dave Pruitt, the court’s chief water commissioner, to investigate by going door to door along the river in the valley with a stack of fact sheets that outline water rights.
“If you don’t have a filed water right, you don’t have a right to pump or divert water out of a stream just because it runs across your land,” Pruitt says in the article.
Dorothy Bradley, a county court coordinator, says that people without rights stick pumps in the river to water lawns or divert tributary streams to flow across their land along the river. Some of those people simply don’t understand water law, she says.
“There was a realization that these illegal uses were taking place,” she says. “But a lot of these people don’t know they’re breaking the law.”
Not all illegal use is out of ignorance, however. People have diverted entire tributary streams, Bradley says in the article, and irrigators stick pumps in the river only at night – dubbed “night rights.”
“Some people know exactly what they’re doing,” says Pruitt, who is responsible for making sure none of the 34 irrigation ditches coming off the West Gallatin is taking too much water. “They’re stealing water.”
What would prompt someone to turn an ex in for water theft? Payback. “We wouldn’t have known about the water theft, but the man made his girlfriend move, so she reported him,” Barbaglia says.
Learn from the Experience
Having experienced water theft in his work, Rader says that systems can do a lot to both detect and discourage illegal connections. “It becomes terribly important that meters always be read and that they be read monthly,” Rader says. “Some systems read quarterly, and they’re really asking for problems. The more that you’re in the meter housing and the more that operators become familiar with the meter settings, the better chances you’ll have of spotting illegal water use.” He stresses that having the capability to lock the meter housing is one of the best deterrents that a system could invest in. “Although locks would be relatively expensive, you need to have some way to secure the meters.”
Rader says it’s imperative for utility workers to routinely open the meter housing as a means of knowing their system’s inner workings. Unfortunately, he says that with some of the new electronic meters and hand-held meter readers on the market, workers often no longer need to open the meter housing. “The meter reader is very seldom inside the box, so unless there’s something out of the ordinary in water usage, and somebody in the billing department flags it, they may never be in the meter housing to find the problem.”
He suggests that systems make their meters as inaccessible as possible by always locking the lids. He also encourages systems to carefully monitor their usage rates. “If you have a good billing system and office staff tracking water usage, they can usually catch theft fairly quickly. When they see someone’s water usage drop from 6,000 or 8,000 gallons a month to 1,000 gallons, then that’s usually a red flag.”
Rader also suggests building a strong relationship with customers. “Keep your customers in the loop, and let them know if something is happening in the system,” he says.“Send the customers a letter letting them know that it is a violation of the law and that the people doing it will be prosecuted.” (See the first sidebar on for an example of a letter a water utility could send with the billing statement.)
Jamie Knotts was a writer/editor for the National Drinking Water Clearing-house and its partner organization, the National Environmental Training Center for Small Communities, both part of the National Environmental Services Center. Now working as a special educator in a public school, he wrote about environmental issues for eight years for the two programs.
“Customers will do anything to get free water,” Rader says. “My mayor did it. The preacher will do it. It just doesn’t make any difference. People don’t think that stealing water is really stealing.” For more information about detecting water theft, consider calling your state’s rural water association circuit rider for advice. Many technical assistance providers encounter water theft and can assist you in detecting and deterring it.
Call the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse at (800) 624-8301 for contact information about your state’s rural water association or visit the National Rural Water Association Web site at www.nrwa.org and click on “state associations.”
Also, consider contacting the manufacturer of your meters and meter housings for their advice in properly securing their equipment. Many manufacturers sell anti-tampering devices for their products. Should you discover water theft in your system, seek legal advice from your local magistrate or other law enforcement agency.
About the Cover - Behind the Scenes
Several National Environmental Services Center (NESC) staff members were involved in putting together the cover for this issue of On Tap. The National Drinking Water Clearinghouse, a program within NESC, would like to thank the following people for sharing their time and talent:
Concept by John Fekete, senior designer and Mark Kemp-Rye, On Tap editor
Cover photo and “Stealing Water” photos by Julie Black, graphic designer
Additonal photography support by Chris Metzgar, graphic designer
The “Stealing Water Players” (from left to right in the photo below):
Mark Kemp-Rye, Bethany Reed, Wiselin “Happy Man” Mathuram, Chris Metzgar, and Betty Golden.
Special thanks to Sergio Soave, chair and professor of art, College of Creative Arts at West Virginia University.