Metal thefts are a mushrooming epidemic, costing farmers, irrigation districts and utilities millions of dollars and jeopardizing crop production. It's a quick crime for fast cash as thieves steal high value metals - copper, aluminum, brass, and bronze — from irrigation pumps and wells, portable generators at construction sites, utility sub-stations, air conditioners, traffic signals and a universe of others.

Analysts theorize most thieves are drug users financing an addiction. One hundred pounds of copper wire is worth $200 to $250 at the scrap yard.

Theft and citrus

DeWayne Justice of Justice Brothers Farms in Waddell, Ariz., worked feverishly last January to protect his oranges, lemons, and grapefruit from freezing temperatures. Irrigation water would provide a partial blanket of protection against the destroying cold.

As Justice readied to release the water flow, his busy legs froze in place — the pump was ripped to smithereens. The pump was torn apart and thieves escaped with the indispensable copper wiring, destroying Justice's opportunity to save some fruit.

“The thief apparently used a collapsible fiberglass stick to disconnect the cutouts from the power source, and stole the copper wire from the transformer to the main breaker box to the starter to the pump motor,” Justice said. Even the meter grew legs.

He estimated his inability to irrigate destroyed his 2008 lemon crop, plus 20 percent of his Navel orange crop. Estimated loss: $25,000 to $40,000, not including, pump repair costs of $15,000.

“This all boils down to lost money, more hassles, and less sleep. Since copper thefts occur 24 hours a day, I don't want to be gone from the farm for more than a few hours,” Justice said.

But it's more than that. Before the copper heist and the freeze, Justice had planned a new citrus sizer purchase to increase farm efficiencies, to build new corrals for the 160 beef cows, buy a new cattle scale, and increase conservation efforts. The hopes and dreams are on hold.

Multiple strikes

On Rocky Shelton's cotton, hay, and tree farm in Laveen, Ariz., robbers struck the same Peninsula Irrigation District irrigation pump 11 times in 2006.

“The leads were removed from the switch box to the pump each time,” he noted. Three lights brightened the area at night to hopefully keep robbers at bay. Repair costs for the 11 thefts — $30,000 to $35,000. Insurance covered the first two.

“Here today and gone tomorrow,” Shelton chuckled with a deep disappointing tone in his voice as he explained yet another shocking theft. “I checked on one pump at 10 in the morning and at 3 found the copper wiring completely stripped out.”

Realizing that desperate times mandate drastic actions, Shelton now removes the wire from pumps when not in use.

“It's a 2- to 2½-inch conduit full of wires 24 feet long. I just unhook the leads, drop them, and coil them up,” Shelton said. “The several-hundred-pound load is loaded in the truck and stored elsewhere.” The heavy job requires three people.

Brazen acts

Metal thieves have no boundaries. One suspect rode a bike to a pump, started to steal the copper, and police caught him in the act. Meanwhile, thieves void of human dignity stole bronze vases from cemetery gravesites.

In the Roosevelt Irrigation District (RID) that supplies about 95 percent of its 360,000 acre-feet annual water supply to agriculture in central Arizona, thieves risked everything for a “lively” copper heist.

“Some thieves use extremely sophisticated equipment to steal wire. At several RID well sites, wire was stolen as 460 volts stirred through it,” said RID watermaster Ken Craig.

“In one case, they had already removed the wiring at the well site. During a second visit to the same site, power poles were cut down to steal the wire from the transformers to the box,” Craig noted. “We found a sleeve for a small hatchet on the ground so we assume a hatchet is what was used to cut down the poles.”

In late February, more than 40 of the RID's well sites were deemed inoperable due to vandalism. Since winter was the slower water use period, the RID had opted not to repair wells so thieves could easily target them again. With spring here and water use expected to peak for the RID by March end, the district is working diligently to repair several sites weekly. Because of thefts elsewhere, Craig is unsure if all well sites will be operational in time.

Wire thefts have costs the RID several hundred thousand dollars over the last few years. Bringing older wells back online will cost $25,000 to $30,000 per well since the utility companies Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project (SRP) require upgrading older sites to current standards.

Utility speaks out

The Salt River Project lost $300,000 in 2006 to copper capers. One SRP target is substations where copper is buried underground to protect employees.

“The bad guys know the copper is underground and will try to rip out as much as possible,” said SRP security services manager Pete Chapas. “We've had them hook up pickup trucks to the grid, floor the gas pedal, and try to pull out as much copper as possible.”

One substation theft netted $1,000 in copper while SRP spent $50,000 for site repair. In another incident, thieves used chainsaws to down 20 power poles holding live power lines.

“While the lines were still energized, they opened the top of the transformers and took the 60- to 80-pound copper core from each unit,” Chapas explained.

SRP provides water and electricity to 900,000 Phoenix area residents. Agriculture uses 15 percent of the supply.

Phoenix police detective Theron Quaas has arrested 100 people in the metal theft act and has a conviction rate of above 90 percent.

“The top three excuses people give me when they have a large copper amount is, ‘I found it in the desert, I found it in a dumpster, or someone gave it to me and I can't remember their name,’” Quaas said.

Identifying copper stolen from a specific location is virtually impossible as copper strands lack serial numbers. Arizona lawmakers are debating several bills to tighten the reins on copper sales at scrap yards. Legislative ideas include mailing the customer a check for scrap metal after 15 days vs. cash payment on the spot, customers must be 18 years and older, and requiring a state driver's license.

A Passport or Mexican identification, for example, can be presented for identification at a scrap yard but the frustrated Quaas can't gain access to computers to prove the person's identity.

Quaas said, “The answer is everyone needs to cooperate and work toward a common solution. Farmers and the utilities are willing to come to the table but not other parties like the home builders and the scrap yards.”