Metal theft prevention now in local hands
Manteca farmer Paul Gomes manages about 4,000 acres of tomatoes, pumpkins, watermelons, wheat and corn. It is not uncommon for him to run across irrigation pumps on the farm where panels have been destroyed and copper wire ripped out of the ground, leaving him incapable of watering his crops.
These "rip and grips" have cost Gomes nearly $139,000 in the past 12 months.
"It is not just the cost of the copper. It is getting the irrigation pumps repaired and back online—getting motors fixed, changing pump panels that thieves destroy and re-running conduit," Gomes said. "Two weeks ago thieves stole four pumps and it took five days to get them back online. We were trying to irrigate tomatoes and everything else, so it wasn't good."
According to the Agricultural Crime Technology and Operations Network (ACTION) Project, metal theft increased by 100 percent in 2005 compared to the previous year. Even worse, the theft rate jumped by 400 percent in 2006, and thefts have not let up this year.
A proposed solution to the statewide problem of metal theft was Assembly Bill 844, by Assemblymember Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto), which would have enacted new restrictions on the purchase of metal by scrap metal dealers and recyclers. The bill died in the Senate Business Professions and Economic Development Committee last week when there were not enough votes to obtain passage.
"The committee heard testimony from many groups including utilities, communications, construction and agriculture, the main groups being affected by metal theft," said Noelle Cremers, California Farm Bureau Federation director of natural resources and commodities. "We all wanted to see a statewide solution, but we didn't want to see a statewide solution at the expense of counties being able to address localized problems. The difficulty was the bill had language that would have preempted all county ordinances dealing with metal theft."
Although AB 844 has failed, the Farm Bureau is not giving up on working toward a statewide solution.
"It is important that our members know we recognize that this is a huge issue and just because the bill didn't make it out of the senate committee doesn't mean we are going to stop working on the issue," Cremers said. "We are still going to be working to address it through county ordinances and potentially statewide in the long term."
In the meantime, the state Farm Bureau will support counties and cities in passing individual ordinances to address the problem.
"We are actually coming up with a draft ordinance to help local jurisdictions," Cremers said.
Counties that currently have a metal theft ordinance in place include Fresno, Kern, Tulare and Stanislaus.
"Some of the county ordinances will do what the bill was going to do and some go above and beyond," Cremers said. "Some ordinances require weekly or daily reporting of all transactions from the recyclers to the sheriffs, holding periods for certain metals and payments by check for certain metals."
Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, said his county Farm Bureau was supportive and proactive in making sure that the local ordinance was put in place; however, he believes that a statewide solution is important to solving the problem of metal theft.
"It is still extremely important we fight for statewide legislation so we prevent thefts that are coming from outside the county or from those individuals that are going to recycle outside the county," Jacobsen said.
"There's no doubt the local ordinance will put a dent in the problem of the local meth guys (who use payments from recyclers to buy drugs), but if your neighboring county doesn't have the same ordinance or if the city within the county doesn't have the same ordinance, then you are really not getting everything you hoped to or intended to through the ordinance."
Losses due to metal theft in Fresno County in 2006 skyrocketed to $1.1 million, according to information provided by ACTION.
"One of our biggest problems right now in our county, and I know it is happening elsewhere, are the thieves coming from Northern California and the Bay Area that drive down I-5 at night, make a big clean sweep stealing metal, and they are out of the county before morning comes," Jacobsen said. "What is a county ordinance going to do there? Nothing, because our county ordinance deals strictly with local metal yards."
San Joaquin County is currently working on adopting a metal theft prevention ordinance; however, for it to be successful, the major cities in the county will also need city ordinances.
"The problem that we may face is all the recyclers in our county are in the cities," said Detective Shelby Oliver of the San Joaquin County Rural Crime Task Force. "We talked about doing a local ordinance before, but the challenge is making it work in all of the county's four major cities: Tracy, Manteca, Lodi and Stockton. Hopefully San Joaquin will be able to do something. Metal theft is a huge problem for us."
Metal theft has become such a widespread concern for farmers in the county that the San Joaquin County Rural Crime Task Force has developed a task force specifically to combat it.
"Metal theft has been our main issue," Oliver said. "We have been strictly dealing with copper wire theft because of all of the pumps that have been hit. It has been bad, really bad."
Sheriff's deputies throughout the state report there is no slowing of the theft of copper, aluminum, stainless steel, brass and bronze and, like San Joaquin County, many departments have formed theft task forces to put a stop to the thieves.
"Our members are reporting huge rates of metal theft," Cremers said. "They have their same pump hit time and time again. Thieves go after anything that is not nailed down and even if it is, they rip it up.
"When the thefts were happening in the winter, there were concerns in the delta because some of the pumps needing to drain some of the islands were out of commission, but there weren't crops that needed the water. Now with triple-digit temperatures, when you have your pump go down, you cannot miss any time to irrigate or you will lose your crop."
Soaring temperatures are a concern with farmers, especially those like Gomes whose pumps are hit routinely.
"If you can't irrigate your crop, you are in trouble," Gomes said. "We've actually hired a guard to keep an eye on things. I'm getting numb to this anymore."
(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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