Feds Allege an Audacious, Decades-Long Heist—of Water

'Los Angeles Times' unravels the charges out of the Panoche Water District in rural California
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 5, 2024 7:00 AM CDT
Feds Allege an Audacious, Decades-Long Heist—of Water
In this file photo, water flows through an irrigation canal to crops near Lemoore, Calif.   (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

You might say the story of an alleged water heist described in the Los Angeles Times is so audacious it's made for Hollywood—except Chinatown pretty much already covered it. Like that Jack Nicholson classic, the true-life story involves allegations of illicit water siphoning on a massive scale in California. As Jessica Garrison reports, federal officials have charged 77-year-old Dennis Falaschi, head of the rural Panoche Water District in the San Joaquin Valley, with stealing $25 million worth of water from the federal Central Valley Project starting in the early 1990s. This "allegedly happened cat burglar-style, siphoned through a secret pipe, often after hours, to avoid detection," writes Garrison. In all, the feds say Falaschi siphoned off 130,000 acre feet of water from the Delta-Mendota Canal, enough to keep a small city going for several years, according to the story.

The indictment also alleges that Falaschi and close-knit employees got rich in the process, as they sold the stolen water to local farmers—or returned it to the federal canal for water credits. Many of those farmers, it should be noted, view Falaschi not as a villain but more as the "Robin Hood of irrigation." The story unpacks all of this—including far less favorable views of Falaschi among other farmers—along with the history of the federal irrigation project. One amazing part of the story is how a federal hydrologist discovered the theft when, on a routine inspection, he spotted a discarded yellow hat near an abandoned irrigation pipe that was spinning in circles because of the force of water—where no water was supposed to be present. Read the full, fascinating story. (Or read other longform recaps.)

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