Tom Selleck in hot water... for stealing water?

Actor Tom Selleck is facing a lawsuit from a public water district for allegedly stealing truckloads of water from a hydrant. How much of an issue is water theft?

Carlo Allegri/AP Photo/File
Actor Tom Selleck poses for a portrait in New York on March 21, 2012. A lawsuit accuses Selleck of stealing truckloads of water from a public hydrant and bringing it to his Southern California ranch.

In drought-stricken California, not even celebrities can get away with hoarding water.

The Calleguas Municipal Water District has filed a complaint against veteran actor Tom Selleck and his wife, Jillie, for allegedly trucking water from a public hydrant in Thousand Oaks, Calif., to his 60-acre ranch near Los Angeles about a dozen times since 2013. Calleguas says Mr. Selleck is prohibited from using water from the hydrant because his property is located in a different public water district, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Calleguas filed the suit as a civil action, not a criminal case, and police have yet to find evidence that Selleck committed a crime, according to NBC.

Still, the case highlights the growing issue of water theft in California, as the state’s unprecedented drought drags on and officials crack down on water use statewide.

“Water has become the unlikely subject of black market dealings in some of California’s worst-hit areas,” PBS reported in November.

Last August, a sheriff’s deputy in Mendocino County followed a trail of water droplets up a dirt road to find a truck outfitted with a water tank, the National Journal reported. The driver confessed he had taken the water from a nearby canal and planned to auction it off.

In the fall, a construction crew in the Bay Area suburb of San Ramon hooked up hoses to a fire hydrant and stole 700 gallons of water, according to the Associated Press.

Other incidents include Central Valley homeowners fined $1,500 for siphoning water off a canal, a state investigation into the disappearance of huge amounts of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and irrigation pipes removed from Silicon Valley after a nudist colony reportedly made “unauthorized water diversions” from a waterfall.

In response, officials across the state have imposed or raised fines and called for harsher penalties against water thieves. Some water-governing bodies have started requiring regular reports of water usage from farmers and businesses.

“I think our public water agency members are being proactive,” said Jennifer Persike from the California Association of Water Agencies. “They’re talking about it. It's all part of the overall action they’re taking a look at.”

Part of the problem is the difficulty of monitoring water theft.

“Part of the culture of the [State Water Resources Control Board] is that they’re not going to take away someone’s water unless the evidence is pretty conclusive,” Chris Shutes, a water consultant who works with the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and other groups to monitor illegal diversions, told the Sacramento Bee last year.

“They don’t have people with that kind of enforcement mentality,” he added. “Most of the fines are slaps on the wrist.”

Average citizens, however, have developed their own punitive measures against neighbors who waste or steal water: “drought shaming” on social media.

That appears to be Tom Selleck’s fate, as Callegua’s suit against him persists. Since news of the complaint broke, Mr. Selleck, known for the 1980s series “Magnum P.I.” and now playing a police chief in “Blue Bloods,” has been featured prominently in tandem with the Twitter hashtag, #droughtshaming.

Some have compared drought shaming to a witch hunt, but others call it a helpful tool in generating awareness of the drought and the issues surrounding it.

“This had to happen. The price of celebrity is that people will pay attention to you,” Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, told the Christian Science Monitor in May. “It is useful in helping the general public pay attention to California's current water scarcity.”

This report used material from the Associated Press.

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