Modesto Irrigation District crackdown leaves residents in dark, cold

gstapley@modbee.comFebruary 4, 2014 

Most nights, Alice Williams and her family huddle around a gas stove to keep warm. They use flashlights to see as they move through the house.

“We all pile up in one room,” Williams said. “It’s not fun.”

It’s been this way for two weeks, ever since a Modesto Irrigation District technician, alerted to possible power theft, disconnected the Modesto home that Williams rents, climbed over a backyard fence and yanked out the power meter. The family has hot water, but the furnace requires electricity. Tuesday, Williams got a small, gas-powered generator, so the family now at least has power for a lamp and TV set.

The utility provided no warning to Williams or her landlord, Kamal Lal, each said, and Williams said she lost several hundred dollars’ worth of food that spoiled when her refrigerator and a freezer went warm.

“They should have at least given me a courtesy notice,” Lal fumed. “They just barged in. It’s unethical.”

It’s legal.

There is a powerful public interest in curbing power theft, MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said, because costs to deliver electricity to the utility’s 113,000 customers go up when someone gets away with it. Also, illegal diversion sometimes signals illicit activity such as a marijuana-growing operation nourished with high-powered lights.

Melissa Williams spoke in general, without addressing the circumstances of Lal or Alice Williams (no relation), to avoid violating customers’ privacy rights.

How often do people try swiping power?

Using new and secret technology, MID has detected 350 diversions in the past year and a half, Melissa Williams said. She declined to explain the district’s improved “smart grid forensics” method for fear of tipping off thieves on how to outsmart the district.

Pinpointing those problems has enabled MID to recover $1.8 million, she said.

District policy allows disconnection with no notice for equipment that could be unsafe because of age, rodent activity or tampering.

That seems crazy to Lal, who owns 38 rental properties. Of those, six were disconnected in a three-day span two weeks ago, he said.

One that went dark is home to three elderly people and their caretaker, Lal said. Another has small children, and two members of Alice Williams’ family are disabled, she said.

Of the six properties, equipment at five showed signs of funny business, Lal acknowledged. “But they don’t know when they were tampered with; it could have been five years ago,” he said.

Some units require upgraded electric panels, while others need riser relocations with fresh trenches, Lal said. Many require city permits and inspections, and MID charges hundreds of dollars, depending on circumstances, in reconnection fees.

Lal said he has paid an electrician about $8,000 to restore power to three units. His insurance has denied reimbursement claims, he said.

Alice Williams said she was told upgrades were needed at her home, taking longer than expected.

“I asked MID what I’m supposed to do, but they really don’t care,” she said.

“I’m a quiet person. I try to get along with everyone,” she continued. “We’re just praying that it will all be worked out soon.”

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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