AUSTIN -- Each day, dozens of Austin utility workers check water meters across the city. They are the first line of defense to combat water theft when they spot meters turned off by the City, but still in use.
"You're taking something that's not yours and that's important for people to understand," said Austin Water spokesperson Jason Hill.
It's a crime a KVUE Defenders investigation found increasing in Austin. According to water utility records reviewed by the Defenders, the city reported more than 586 million gallons of water stolen from 2008 to 2011; a 24 percent increase over the past two years.
To put that in perspective, it takes about 4.5 million gallons to fill the Barton Springs pool. The amount of water stolen in Austin could have filled the pool more than 130 times.
Depending on the meter rate, the half a billion gallons totals $4.6 million worth of water.
Hill said there’s not clear cause for the spike in theft.
“That increase, we did see. We are going to have to take it out a little bit longer. If it goes down, if it goes up again to really get a bead on what caused that," said Hill.
Water theft typically happens two ways. When residential customers hook up to meters before notifying the City; and through commercial use. If contractors draw water from fire hydrants without paying for permits, the City considers that water theft.
"They use a lot of water. So, when they're hooking up to those things, I mean they can fill up tanker trucks of water," Hill said.
Those caught stealing face a $150 water tampering fees. The City has collected more than $450,000 in water theft fines since 2008. Thieves could also face criminal prosecution.
Tony Allevato is one of 2,700 Austin water customers fined for meter tampering since 2008.
Allevato said when he renovated his North Austin bingo hall, his plumber connected his building to two water meters, but the City only knew about one.
Austin water then turned off his service.
"At that point, I called them and said ‘What gives?’ And they said 'You haven't been paying, no one has been paying on this meter and you've been drawing from it,'" Allevato said.
He said it was an honest mistake and the City returned his water service almost immediately.
The City charged Tom Blackwell with a tampering fee in December. Blackwell didn't know about it until we showed him.
“I guess I should have paid closer attention to my bill," he said.
Blackwelll told us he asked his plumber to hook up to an old meter so he could water trees dying from the drought. He said he then quickly contacted the City to turn on service.
"I thought I was doing absolutely the right and honest thing to do, because it would have been easy to do by putting the hose bib on there and not tell anybody, but we didn't," said Blackwell.
Done unintentionally or not, water theft impacts all of us. Continued theft could raise water bills and there’s also a chance of water contamination.
Rigged meters can allow dirty water to backflow into the City's system.
"We know what's in our system's water. It meets city, state, federal regulations in regards to safety. We don't want water that we don't know where it's from, back into our system because now that's a threat to public health," said Hill.
According to stolen water figures provided by San Antonio and Fort Worth, it doesn't appear Austin's water theft is out of the ordinary.
While half a billion gallons of stolen water is a lot of water, Hill said it still averages out to less than one percent of the total water used each year in the city.
If you suspect water theft, call 311. For more information on how to help the City spot and prevent it, check out its water theft page on its website.