SACRAMENTO – Assemblymember Adam Gray (D-Merced) announced today that his bill to strengthen penalties for water theft has been signed into law by Governor Newsom. Gray introduced Assembly Bill 2505 to address concerns that recent changes to state law had unintentionally capped fines for water theft within irrigation districts below market value.

“Irrigation districts are some of the best water managers in the state,” said Gray. “They have had the authority to set penalties for water theft within their boundaries since their inception. As drought conditions worsen and water prices rise, thieves are growing increasingly brazen and the water they steal from canals and reservoirs is increasingly valuable. If the maximum fine for stealing $5,000 worth of water is capped at $1,000 then thieves can make a profit even when they get caught.”

The confusing situation was caused by a new law created last year which sought to increase the fines local governments can levy for water theft. Senate Bill 427 raised the maximum fines for water theft issued by local governments from between $100-$500 to $1,000-$3,000. The bill broadly applied to all local agencies including “counties, cities, towns…districts, political subdivisions, and any boards, commissions, or other local public agencies.” Unfortunately, the application to “districts” and any other “local public agencies” could be interpreted to apply to irrigation districts where fines were never previously limited to the $100-$500 range targeted by the bill.

“Municipal fines for water theft needed to be updated and raised to effectively deter theft,” said Gray. “Unfortunately, the new law could be read as having the exact opposite effect on irrigation districts by reducing the maximum fines they are allowed to issue. AB 2505 fixes this problem by clarifying irrigation districts retain their local authority to set fines for water theft within their jurisdiction.”

Writing in support of Gray’s bill, Merced Irrigation District General Manager John Sweigard wrote, “Under AB 2505, irrigation districts may instead develop and impose policies or penalties that are more representative of the quantities of water that may be taken from an irrigation district and are more tailored to the community and customer base served by a particular irrigation district.”

The Association of California Water Agencies stated, “While SB 427 helped bolster measures to deter [water theft], its broad application to local agencies may unintentionally restrict and reduce the fines for water theft existing law authorizes irrigation districts to impose…AB 2505 is a simple measure intended to clarify that irrigation districts may set fines in accordance with their existing authority…”

“As drought conditions worsen, water scarcity drives the price of water up and incentivizes additional theft,” continued Gray. “Fines and penalties within irrigation districts must continue to reflect these changing dynamics to avoid creating circumstances where it is cheaper to steal water and pay the fine than to buy it legally.”

Adam Gray represents Assembly District 21, which includes Merced and Stanislaus counties.