OUR WATER: Red Creek MUD theft highlights lack of water theft legislation

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Municipal Utility District experiences water theft, pursues legal action

SAN ANGELO, TX – An arrest has been made in the case of water theft from a local water utility district. In late March of 2019, Red Creek MUD maintenance personnel noted an unauthorized hose-line running from a utility service meter box to a private residence. That hose was later removed by the resident, who is renting the property, but not before MUD staff documented it.

In pursuit of legal action, the utility district discovered that protections against and punishments for water theft, are not as stringent as those for electricity or gas theft.

According to Texas penal code, theft of electricity is a class A misdemeanor to start, with a felony potential. Theft of gas in Texas, is an automatic felony. For theft of water, depending on how much and how well documented the case it, it can fall anywhere from criminal mischief to theft or theft of service. That lands it in the class C to class A misdemeanor range, with little chance of bringing felony charges to bear.

Water theft in the Concho Valley, especially in larger urban areas, typically looks like this. One resident will run a line over to neighboring property and take water from a customer of the utility service. When caught, they may or may not be assessed fines, but the bringing of legal charges usually falls to the property owner they trespassed against to get the water.

Some of the few examples like Red Creek, where water was taken directly from the utility provider, come from the city of Ballinger. According to City Manager Tommy Turney, Ballinger has had four cases in recent memory.

The city of Ballinger did press charges against the individuals but, according to Turney, the county D.A. decided not to prosecute any of these individuals. This due to the difficulty of proving the case, specifically in regards to the amount of water stolen.

To combat this, Ballinger now employs smart water meters and the history of water usage for that meter is tracked.

Specific to Red Creek Municipal Utility District, the timeline played out as follows. In March of 2019, the theft was detected when a concerned landowner called the office to report a hose from the district’s water meter box running up to the house on Rust Road.  The office manager contacted maintenance staff to investigate and found an illegal connection directly into the water system.  In May of 2019 the district committed to improving security within their means, adding new locks to their meter boxes. In June of 2019, an arrest warrant was issued for Lucio Mendoza. Finally in July of 2019, Mendoza was arrested and faces a hearing in early August.

The major issue highlighted by this case, is buried in the details. Immediately after the theft was detected, the Tom Green County Sheriff’s office was contacted about the theft.  A deputy came out and followed the maintenance man back to site where the connection had been removed from the box.  However, maintenance staff did take photos of the connection when it was still in place.  The Tom Green County Sheriff’s deputy spoke with the violator, Lucio Mendoza, and then spoke with Red Creek MUD to confirm that they intended to press charges.

The matter was shortly thereafter referred to the Tom Green County Attorney, which Red Creek Mud confirmed with the County Commissioner. According to Red Creek MUD staff, the county was originally only pursuing a class C misdemeanor. Through her own research, Red Creek MUD board president Kimberly Francis found that “Texas Penal Code Section 28.03(b)(3)(B); which states it is a Class A Misdemeanor with a large fine and possible jail time for theft of water from a water provider.”

Now aware of this information, the county is pursuing a class A misdemeanor charge.

The potential for felony charges did exist, as following 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security considers it a terrorist threat to break into a self-contained water district.  Red Creek Municipal Utility District has over 300 connections and so harming the system could affect humans and animals of the district. However, this course was abandoned once it became clear that pursuing felony charges through the state per the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would take even longer than the lesser charges through the county.

Lawmakers representing the Concho Valley region of West Texas have yet to comment. At press time for this article, we had tried to establish contact with the owner of the property Mendoza is renting, with no response. This is a developing story and we will bring you more information once it becomes available.

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