Water thieves abound in dry California

  • 04.12.2022
  • Grist

It’s not easy enforcing water regulations in the West. Just ask the officials in California who have been trying for almost a decade to penalize a man who took water from the river system that feeds San Francisco and bottled it for sale to stores like Starbucks.

It sounds like a tall tale, but it’s illustrative of just how hard it is to stop scofflaws from using water the rest of the state needs during a water crisis.

In 2015, at the height of a severe drought, California’s state water agency received a series of complaints about water theft on a small tributary of the Tuolumne River, the source of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir that supplies most of San Francisco’s water.

G. Scott Fahey, the owner of a water bottling company called Sugar Pine Spring Water, was siphoning water from the spring and loading it on trucks, the complainants said. Fahey’s company had been tapping the spring for more than a decade—he supplied water to a company named on Starbucks’s list of water bottle suppliers at the time—but the state had imposed drought restrictions on the Tuolumne that year, which barred Fahey from using it.

The state issued a cease-and-desist order to Fahey within weeks, and a few months later investigators began gathering information to prosecute him. It looked like a slam-dunk case. In the end, though, it would take the state more than six years to complete the prosecution—long enough for the 2015 drought to end and another drought to begin. During that time Fahey would appeal the state’s initial decision and sue the state for wrongful prosecution, dragging the case out for years in an effort to avoid paying $215,000 in damages.

In the fall of last year, just as the state was nearing the end of the prosecution, officials received another complaint about Fahey—according to the complainant, he was stealing water from the same river again, undeterred by the full force of California’s prosecution.