Copper thieves in California take out farmers' water pumps

Farmers in rural Madera County, California, are worried about water—no surprise considering the state's intense drought. But now they have something else to concern them: copper.

Copper water pipes.
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The red metal's overall scarcity and its wide range of uses make it more profitable to steal than most other metals. Copper prices have fallen from highs reached in 2011—$4.06 a pound then versus $2.77 today—but farmers and rural law enforcement agencies are increasingly worried about criminals sacking water pumps, which are critical in the drought and contain plenty of copper. (Tweet This)

Having a pump taken out of action by thieves pilfering copper can compromise a lot of produce in the hot, summer months, when temperatures regularly reach 100 degrees.

The saddest thing is we're talking about 50 bucks worth of wire. And it can cost us anywhere between $8-$16,000 to fix it, per pump. It's astonishing.
Anja Raudabaugh
executive director, Madera County Farm Bureau

If a pump broke in the past, farmers could usually either rely on stored water or reroute the lines to another pump, according to the Madera County Farm Bureau's executive director, Anja Raudabaugh. But the drought has left the state with very little water in reservoirs and tanks, and groundwater is drying up fast. Leaving just one pump out of service could compromise thousands of acres of crops, Raudabaugh said.

Usually thieves are just after wire or other components they can sell at recycling centers.

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The Madera County Farm Bureau maintains an anonymous tip line and hands out "hefty" rewards to anyone who may have information that leads to a conviction, Raudabaugh said.

"The saddest thing is we're talking about 50 bucks worth of wire. And it can cost us anywhere between $8-$16,000 to fix it, per pump," she said. "It's astonishing."

The local district attorney also has launched a task force to tackle rural theft in the area. Neighboring Fresno County has a similar "Ag Task Force" which patrols rural areas and responds to vandalism and theft calls.

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Raudebaugh calls Madera County a "labyrinthine" collection of townships and winding roads—many with nearly identical names. Water pumps and other farm equipment are often buried in orchards and fields, far from roads. She suspects most thieves hear about pump sites and other equipment from friends or relatives who work on farms.

The county is well-known for its almonds, grapes and pistachios. Local farmer Michael Naito grows all three, and has had to spend "a lot of money" over the years replacing damaged or missing components on pumps and irrigation lines. He said he's spent as much as $3,500 fixing a single pump.

The problem is not so much the copper itself, but repairing the equipment that thieves destroy trying to get at it, Naito said.

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Locks and anti-theft devices work to a point, mostly to encourage thieves to move on to easier targets. But some criminals will work away at even a locked electrical panel, destroying it in the process anyway.

"If you have a couple or more of those a year, it can amount to tens of thousands of dollars right away," he said. "It doesn't take long."

When copper prices were at record highs a few years ago, thieves were hitting streetlights and home air conditioning units in nearby towns, Naito said. He supports the idea of a task force to handle the problem, especially if the price of the metal increases.

"When the price of copper rises, they will break into anything that has a bit of copper in it," he said. "It's crazy."