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Something Fishy About This Theft : Utilities: Water district officials say hydrant was being tapped to fill a neighborhood pond kept stocked for anglers.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For six weeks, Trabuco Canyon Water District officials fumed as the big one kept getting away--namely, the mysterious water thief who informants said was tapping district lines to fill a local fishing hole.

But now, district officials think they have found the culprit--or culprits.

A few days ago, a district worker patrolling late at night discovered a fire hose connected to a hydrant in the tony Trabuco Highlands development pumping 1,000 gallons of water per minute into the pond.

Within minutes, officials said Tuesday, the worker found himself surrounded by area residents eager to write a check, install a meter, negotiate a deal, anything to quietly settle the incident.

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Nothing doing. District officials called the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

“If they were just filling a pool, that would be one thing,” district general manager Fred Sims said Tuesday. “But this is as much a crime as stealing something off a store shelf.”

Sheriff’s investigators are trying to determine who tapped into the hydrant, although district officials said they won’t press charges if somebody just pays a $5,000 bill for the 1.5 million gallons allegedly taken from the district.

Carved into the bottom of a ravine by cattle ranchers long ago, the fishing hole has been the private reserve for homeowners living on Brookseed Drive, who have stocked the pond with bass and catfish, according to residents.

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A tiny, makeshift wooden dock rests on the edge of the pond with a couple of lawn chairs sitting nearby.

“A lot of our kids fish there,” said resident Rex Moody. “It keeps the surrounding vegetation green, it provides water for animals and keeps mosquitoes away” from homes.

Moody, who said he had nothing to do with connecting the fire hose to the hydrant, believes the district is overreacting.

“The district guy who came out (Friday) night was ranting,” he said. “He said we were committing a bleeping felony and should be put in jail.”

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Sims declined to say who is suspected of taking the water but added that the Sheriff’s Department is investigating. Department officials could not be reached Tuesday to discuss the case.

The fire hose ran from a street hydrant through the back yard of a vacant house to a concrete culvert. From there, water flowed into the pond, which is about 50 feet across and a maximum of five to six feet deep, water officials said.

The water leeches from the pond into two other bodies of water farther down the ravine, one covering an area of about two acres. District officials estimate that 1.5 million gallons have been siphoned off, a year’s supply of water for five families.

According to the Trabuco Highlands Homeowners Assn., the ponds are on land belonging to the association.

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Don Chadd, president of the association’s board of directors, acknowledged that the water was taken improperly but said Brookseed residents were being unfairly singled out because the association had sued the district on an unrelated matter this summer.

“It was dumb for these people to do what they did,” Chadd said, “but I think the district is trying to make examples out of some of our residents. This was very bad timing on (the residents’) part.”

Sims countered, “This is no vendetta. If this was Portola Hills or any place else, we’d be reacting exactly the same because when you steal water, everyone in the district pays.”

The general manager, whose district serves about 4,000 customers, said the first reports that residents were tapping into the lines came about six weeks ago.

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“These ponds dry up in the summer, and I guess these folks had stocked the pond with bass and wanted the water to keep the pond full,” Sims said. “We had to catch them in the act, so we sent our people out regularly” to patrol the neighborhood.

“We took this real seriously because our only revenue is water,” he said. “God makes the water flow down the hills for free, but it costs a lot to pump it back up to these homes.”


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