August 19, 2014

Three accused of stealing water object to public shaming by Modesto Irrigation District

Three men accused of stealing Modesto Irrigation District water defended themselves at Tuesday’s board meeting, and asked to reverse $1,500 fines. All said district airing of the issue amounts to public humiliation.

Two people accused of stealing water from a Modesto Irrigation District canal told board members they’re innocent. A third also appealed at Tuesday’s board meeting, and all said district airing of the issue amounts to public humiliation.

“This is really kind of embarrassing to all of us that this comes out,” said Ron Holmes of Empire, who said his daughter-in-law called from Louisiana late Monday to let him know he was named in a Modesto Bee article. “Somebody could have called us, sent us a letter or contacted us,” he added.

Chester Hammonds told the board, “To use our names and slander us in the way you’ve done is not being a responsible business.”

The district put names of the accused on its website, as determined when the board in February adopted penalties.

Holmes, Hammonds and three other neighbors were fined $1,500 each on accusations of siphoning water from a canal south of Garst Road. All are so-called garden-head customers, or among the district’s 750 homeowners who water yards and gardens, as opposed to commercial farmers.

Holmes and Hammonds said previous owners must have installed the siphon pipes before they bought their homes years ago. Both mostly rely on wells, they said.

Hammonds said he has used only one-third of his fair share of canal water this year and would have no reason to steal more. He denied using illegal pipes and hinted at legal “recourse” if the district’s public shaming were deemed “vicious.”

“This was handled poorly. Some of my neighbors don’t look to me like cattle rustlers or water thieves,” Holmes said. But he admitted having used one of the pipes destroyed by an MID backhoe, accompanied by an armed guard, after a ditchtender detected the shady equipment July 31.

Neighbor David Switzer also appealed to the board, saying, “I think you’re being unfair, publishing our names.” But he admitted using a siphon pipe to water cypress trees he planted years ago to shield a view of the canal from his home. He also acknowledged having received a warning a year ago.

Board members encouraged them to provide timelines and other documents in formal appeal letters for the board to consider.

Board Chairman Nick Blom encouraged the men to speak during a nonspecific open comment period, after which they left. Later in the meeting, the district’s civil engineering manager, John Davids, gave a presentation on the district’s investigations, including photographs and other details.

Also accused are Yonan George and Casey and Diane Johnson, who own Empire property near the others, as well as Penelope Miller, who is accused of watering an almond orchard west of Modesto despite having used up her fair share of canal water this drought season.

A portable submersible pump dangled into a canal in one picture. Davids said a ditchtender discovered the pump while patrolling at 1 a.m. – four days after the illegal pipes were detected in the same area. The district called for law enforcement protection, but someone removed the pump before a deputy sheriff arrived, Davids said.

Board member Larry Byrd asked if it were possible the owner discovered his pipe had been removed and innocently tried to restore his means of receiving water. General Manager Roger VanHoy identified the owner as George. Davids said George, the same as many others within MID’s service area, pays standby fees to preserve the possibility of someday receiving district water, but does not have a right to any.

“It’s pretty black and white to me,” VanHoy said. “We will read whatever people write (in appeal letters), but no one told us they did not take the water.”

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