HUMBOLDT COUNTY -- An elementary school in Bridgeville reopened Wednesday after being forced to close for a day when staff discovered up to 20,000 gallons of water had been stolen from an on-site water tank during the Labor Day weekend.
"There were tire tracks in the field on the south side of the school," Humboldt County Sheriff's Office Lt. Steve Knight said of the theft from Bridgeville Elementary School. "The school staff believes someone climbed the fence, and used a school garden hose to drain the tank."
Knight said it is believed a water truck or large truck and trailer with water tanks were used in the theft. He said the reason behind the theft is unknown.
"We've not had to deal with cases like this before, but with the warm dry weather conditions we've been having, we expect to see more this year," Knight said. "It's disturbing that someone would put their own water needs before children."
Bridgeville is an unincorporated area in Humboldt County. The theft comes one month after 20,000 gallons of water were stolen from the nearby Weott Community Services District Board, which provides water to a community of 330 people -- including Agnes J. Johnson Elementary School, the Cal Fire station, the post office and a state park campground.
Bridgeville Superintendent and Principal Beth Anderson said a maintenance worker arrived at the K-8 campus around 5 a.m. and realized there was no running water. She said when he checked the on-site 20,000-gallon tank which stores water for the school -- which serves 43 students -- he discovered it was completely drained.
"I was told that without running water, we could not run the school," Anderson said. "Then we spent about an hour telling everyone that was arriving that there was no school that day."
Anderson said the worker checked for any sign of a leak -- such as wet ground or foaming along the water line -- before pumping 3,000 gallons of water into the tank from an on-site well.
"Then we checked everywhere for leaks -- all the sinks, all toilets, any plumbing, anything that could cause water to go missing," she said. "But when we checked the tank again, the 3,000 gallons we had pumped in was still there. So we pumped in more, and it was still there later. No leaks."
Anderson said there is no surveillance set up near the water tank.
"The tank only serves the school, but it is needed for pretty much anything that uses water on school grounds," she said, citing fire prevention, cooking, cleaning, and watering plants. Anderson said she isn't certain, but she estimated that the school uses around 3,000 gallons of water a day. "Every time you flush a toilet, it's like half a gallon."
Humboldt County Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell let out an audible gasp when she heard about the theft, and called it a "blight on rural areas."
"We've all been talking about water issues. I think stealing it is as selfish and criminal as you can get," Fennell said. "It used to be that you could leave your car unlocked or your house unlocked and not even have to worry. Now everyone locks their cars and their houses, and we're going to need lights on water tanks and video surveillance."
A broken water line resulting from an accelerated refilling effort in Weott prompted the Board of Supervisors to declare a local emergency for repairs.
Eureka-based SHN Engineering's Mike Veach, who is serving as project manager for the repairs, said the project is in the process of permitting and design.
"We've surveyed the site and now the geotechs are going down there," Veach said. "They'll analyze the physics of the ground. They're trying to locate bedrock. It's the last piece of information needed before designing a replacement pipe."
Veach said the line that needs to be replaced is about 600 feet long and varies from 3 to 4 inches in diameter. He said the goal is to begin construction by around mid-October and end by Nov. 1.
Knight said the crimes do not seem to be connected, but they raise concerns of potential water wars in Humboldt County due to significant marijuana cultivation in the area.
"Just last week, we made arrests for stream diversions at a marijuana grow," he said. "We may see more of that if the weather stays like this."
Catherine Wong can be reached at 441-0514 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter and Tout @cmwong27.