By Martin Orquiz/La Verdad

CIUDAD JUÁREZ — Using dirt, boards, rocks, leaves and even trash, José hides the water meter that the Juárez Municipal Water and Sanitation Board installed in his home.

He’s trying to keep JMAS meter readers from seeing that his water connection is illegal.

He decided to tap into the potable water line when he moved back to the home, which had been unused and had no water service for years. Yet it accrued a bill of thousands of pesos with JMAS, he said when he agreed to speak with La Verdad on condition his full name not be used.

“I got tired of them,” he said. “They wanted me to pay as if I had a swimming pool, but here we don’t use that much water. Someone told me it would be better to tap into the line so I wouldn’t have to pay as much, so I did it.”

His thinking is that he is not causing JMAS any trouble because, first of all, the earth supplies water “for free” and anyway, how much could he be using?

However, just like José’s house, there are thousands of buildings connected illegally to the potable water lines in Ciudad Juárez. Sergio Nevárez Rodríguez, executive director of JMAS, estimates that currently there are at least 5,000 unregistered water connections in the city.

It is happening all over the city, he says, which affects the water supply because it causes low water pressure in some neighborhoods. Also, there are leaks that go undetected which also affect the water pressure.

Recent reports from families in some of the outlying neighborhoods show that the residents of 34 subdivisions, throughout the southeast, the northwest and southwest of Ciudad Juárez, suffer from a lack of water almost all day long. The problem is worse in Anapra, Los Ojitos, Portal del Roble and Oasis.

In terms of money, the cost of stealing water through these unregistered connections, combined with the people who don’t pay, the loss to the water utility is about 100 million pesos per month (about $5 million), which is 43.4% of the utility’s budget, according to data from JMAS.

“We bring in 230 million pesos a month ($11.4 million) of revenue from water. We calculate that, easily, we’re missing another 100 million pesos,” Nevárez said of the  losses generated by the unregistered water connections in Ciudad Juárez.

A water utility worker installs a meter on a water line in Juárez. (Courtesy of JMAS de Ciudad Juárez)

JMAS has 459,000 home accounts in the metropolitan area, 16,000 commercial sites and 1,400 industrial sites for a total of 476,400 connections or registered users. JMAS estimates that the number of illegal connections is close to 4,700, or 1% of the legal connections.

Finding illegal water intakes

Nevárez said the water utility, a decentralized governmental office in Chihuahua, has a work crew that focuses on finding illegal connections.

They find at least 20 unregistered connections per month, he said. But it’s hard to find the connections because the majority are connected to the water lines underground.

“It’s complicated. We look at usage volumes, which lead us to ask, ‘why, if I’ve got such a high volume of water use in this area, I’m only charging X amount,’ so we have to go house by house,” he said.

Oscar lives in the El Barreal neighborhood and has not paid for water service in his home for about three years. He stopped after getting into a confrontation with staff from JMAS over two exceedingly high bills in a row of over 2,000 pesos (about $100). He opted not to pay. His water was cut off. He later connected to the city’s water line illegally.

“Don’t hang me from the cross,” he said, laughing, though speaking seriously during the interview. He explained that he can’t be without water because he has a family,  including children.

But he does not want to keep paying excessive amounts for water because he feels it’s not fair. Oscar, who is a mechanic by trade, asked that his full name not be used because he feared retribution.

“I know that what I’m doing is not right, but what they do isn’t either. They charge us too much, that really isn’t good,” he said.

Fines and complaints

So far this year JMAS has filed four water theft complaints with the State Attorney General, Nevárez Rodríguez said.

Leaking water utility pipes are a significant source of water loss in Juárez. (Courtesy of JMAS de Ciudad Juárez)

He said water theft is hard to prove and comes with a very low penalty. He thinks the penalty should be higher so that it will serve as a deterrent.

And it’s not just those who avoid paying for the service completely. Some people have a meter and pay their bills, but some also add a second illegal water connection to avoid paying a higher fee.

“If someone has a pool, if they have a big lawn, they get an unregistered connection and hire a plumber. That’s what we’re trying to change. We are trying to make it a felony, because right now that’s not what it is,” he said.

JMAS prefers to fine those who tap into the decentralized water supply, or if they are able to really document the theft well, bring a criminal case to a judge who will decide who is accountable.

However, Nevárez adds, that he would like the law to be clearer to make it easier to chase after those who steal water. In Chihuahua water theft is considered a theft of “fluid,” which carries lower penalties than taking other movable or consumable items.

This story was produced as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a binational partnership of news organizations in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.