Water theft in Weott leads to increased security measures

Virginia Graziani

Redwood Times

The search continues for the person or persons responsible for the theft of water from the Weott Community Services District during two episodes late last month, according to Hank Bernard, the environmental consultant who manages WCSD's operations.

"Weott's water system is unique," Bernard said. Although the town draws water from two creeks on the hillside above town and has two storage tanks capable of holding 80,000 gallons each, state regulations regarding the rate of filtration of raw water make it impossible to keep the tanks full without 24-hour-a-day operations.

During the day, normal use draws down the water level, but with the system operating all through the night, the storage tanks should be full again by the time people start their day.

Early in the morning of Friday, July 26, however, the 25-foot tall "B" tank, from which treated water is drawn for residents' use, was down five feet, approximately 10,000 gallons short of full storage capacity.

This meant that normal usage for that day lowered tank levels to critical levels, threatening to force use of water from the bottom eight feet of the tank, which is reserved for fire flow.

Bernard's crew discovered that someone had opened a fire hydrant during the night. A stranger's jacket was found hanging from a tree next to the hydrant.

A few days later, several Weott households were awakened at approximately 4 a.m. by loud banging, the sound of water being sucked out of their plumbing.

This indicated that water was being pulled from the system so fast that it was causing vacuums to form in the pipes.

During the second episode, some families were without water during the following day while operators scrambled to manipulate the system so that some water could reach every part of town.

Additionally, the unusual fluctuations in pressure as a result of the theft caused leaks in the pipelines and further loss of water.

Over the next several days Weott residents, members of the WCSD board, Bernard and his crew, local sheriff's deputies, and rangers from Humboldt Redwoods State Park all kept a sharp eye out for suspicious individuals and vehicles.

One morning Bernard, a couple of board members, and as many as 25 residents saw a commercial water tanker truck on a Weott street only one block away from a fire hydrant with a big wet spot next to it.

When questioned, the driver said his truck had broken down in Weott.

Bernard confirmed that the truck was mechanically disabled, and the driver's log book showed he had picked up a tanker-load of water in Fortuna earlier that day, so no charges were brought against him.

But Bernard observed that the truck did not carry either the required sticker or paperwork showing that it was certified by the state to carry potable water. Furthermore, it would be economically infeasible for a commercial water hauler to carry only one load of water a day, he commented to explain why he still suspects this individual of at least attempted theft of water from Weott.

Since then town meters are being read every three days so that the operators can pin down whether and where thefts are being made.

Security cameras have been placed at key locations in town, some by the district's operators and some by residents eager to prevent further incidents.

Bernard is helping WCSD acquire a telemetry system that will alert an operator when the water in the town's tanks drops below a specified level.

Sheriff's deputies and State Park rangers, as well as observant residents of the Weott and Fruitland Ridge areas, have been extremely supportive, Bernard said.

He encouraged everyone in Southern Humboldt to be alert to water theft and to report any suspicious activity.

"It's illegal [for a water district] to sell water for use outside their district, so if you see someone hooking up to a hydrant in your neighborhood, they're a thief," Bernard said.

Bernard's firm, Hank Bernard Environmental Consultants of Fortuna, assists many small public districts and mutual water companies operate their systems and comply with complex local and state regulations.

Noting that the late summer and fall of an extreme drought year are times of water shortages everywhere, Bernard observed, "It's one thing when [a district] has to ask customers to restrict their showers, but when fire reserves have to be opened up to get water to the town, it puts people in danger."