More than a dozen acres of Frank Rashid’s Petite Syrah grapes could shrivel in the sun this week. Because thieves ripped off a system that keeps his irrigation lines running debris-free, Rashid now has no way of getting water to his West Lane vineyard.
“I have a lot of fruit on the vines and it looks like a promising season,” he said. “If we can’t fix it fast, we are in trouble.”
The system works by filtering sand, rocks and debris from the groundwater before it is pressurized and injected into the drip-irrigation system snaking through the vineyard. Technically Rashid could still turn the pumps on and operate his lines, but they would rapidly become choked with mud and stone and require replacement. The bandits made off with two stainless steel tanks that hold debris, along with the control system and its copper wiring. All stolen items can be taken to a recycling center and exchanged for cash, he said.
“I don’t know why they’d steal the tanks,” he said. “They’re just filled with sand and stones.”
Late Friday evening or early Saturday morning, an unknown number of subjects used Rashid’s service road before cutting, grabbing and breaking the intricate filter system and hauling it away. They snapped limbs from a fig tree next to the system and damaged a few vines during their heist. By the time his son came across the scene Sunday morning, only gnarled wires, some tire tracks and snapped pieces of plastic and metal remained. The theft hits Rashid twice, because he could lose his crops and he has to pay to replace his system, said Ed Martin, operations manager for Lodi Irrigation and Pump.
“The people who did this may get $100 or so from the haul, but it’s going to cost him $1,200 to replace just one filtration tank,” Martin said.
Rashid was on the phone with the company for most of Monday morning as he assessed costs and options. In the best-case scenario, Rashid could have a new system up and running as early as Wednesday, Martin said. The entire system would likely cost more than $10,000 to replace, he said.
Rashid waters his vineyards daily or every other day and said he would start being in serious trouble if he went six days without water.
The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department took a report of the incident, but could make no specific comments about the investigation at this point, said Sgt. Mike Jones.
County ordinance 7-1160 requires junk dealers and recyclers to notify the Sheriff’s Department of the sale or purchase, or attempted sale or purchase, of any item appearing to be stolen or used only by governments, railroads, agriculture or utilities.
Commonly, thefts of recyclable materials from agricultural lands are committed by people from out of the area and taken to recycling centers in surrounding regions, he said. The department coordinated with several other law enforcement agencies in June to make a series of arrests of alleged scrap thieves. As many as 19 cases in San Joaquin County could be linked to the arrests, Jones said.
Although Martin said his company has been replacing stolen brass fittings with plastic ones and seen “weekly” thefts of copper wires in the area, it’s the first time in several years he’s heard anything about the large stainless steel tanks stolen.
Martin estimated that it probably took a few people 30 minutes to cut the necessary links and put the tanks in the back of a pickup truck or attached trailer before driving away unnoticed.
“Each tank weighs about 400 pounds because it has sand and gravel in it, but a few people could lean it on a tailgate and slide it in,” he said.
Despite being tucked away in the vineyard, the pump was easily accessible to potential thieves, Rashid said. While he won’t put a gate on the service road for his property, he will fence his new system in once it is installed to hopefully ward off another theft.
He is also offering a reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible or recovery of the system, he said.
The risk of Rashid losing his crop is significant if swift action isn’t taken, Martin said, but there is a reason to look on the bright side.
“At least this didn’t happen last week,” he said, referring to the string of days with triple-digit temperatures.
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.