How an irrigation official allegedly stole $25 million worth of water from a federal canal (2024)

Good morning. It’s Monday, April 29. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

  • Feds accuse former irrigation manager of decades-long water theft
  • Hundreds of pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators gathered at UCLA Sunday for dueling Gaza protests
  • A sophisticated robbery crew targeted armored cars in a series of heists across Los Angeles County
  • And here’s today’s e-newspaper

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The great canal caper: Feds accuse former irrigation manager of decades-long theft

In the western, mostly dry San Joaquin Valley, “water is liquid gold,” according to hydrographer Mark Walsh.

“If you got it, you can make a ton of money,” he recently told The Times’ Jessica Garrison.

As Jessica reported this week, federal officials say a local irrigation official was cashing in on that liquid gold mine by surreptitiously stealing supplies.

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Prosecutors allege that Dennis Falaschi, former general manager at the Panoche Water District, orchestrated a decades-long theft by siphoning $25 million worth of water from a federal aqueduct and selling it to farmers and regional water districts.

Volume-wise, Falaschi allegedly stole 130,000 acre-feet of water between 1992 and 2015, officials said. That’s “enough to supply a small city for several years,” Jessica noted.

“In a state with prolonged bouts of drought and unquenching thirst, stolen water is an indelible part of California lore,” she wrote. “But this was not Los Angeles’ brazen gambit to take water from the Owens Valley. … The water grab described in a federal indictment allegedly happened cat burglar-style, siphoned through a secret pipe, often after hours, to avoid detection.”

State prosecutors filed felony charges against Falaschi in 2018 for misspending public funds. They claim he used the proceeds to pay for housing and personal vehicles for his employees, plus slot machines, concert tickets and home remodeling.

In April 2022, a federal grand jury indicted Falaschi for allegedly masterminding the theft of government water and lying about it on his income on his taxes. The indictment alleged that Falaschi made nearly $900,000 in salary and unreported income just in 2016.

Falaschi has denied the government’s allegations.

So how did the alleged scheme work? According to the indictment, Falaschi directed some of his workers to exploit a leak in the Delta-Mendota Canal way back in 1992. That’s when a worker allegedly notified him that a turnout on the canal previously cemented shut was leaking. Falaschi is accused of directing workers to divert federal water into his district’s system — often under cover of night — using that old turnout.

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The lifted water was then allegedly sold to farmers or sent back to the canal in exchange for federal credits. Falaschi had employees falsely classify the stolen water as reclaimed runoff from local farms, the indictment stated.

Despite his alleged crimes, some farmers see Falaschi as a sort of hydrologic Robin Hood, who helped struggling farms get water amid drought.

“He didn’t cause the leaking,” farmer Joe Del Bosque said. “He just happened to take advantage of it for the good of the farmers.”

Given that the alleged water thefts occurred over 23 years, some wonder: “Why did state and federal water officials take so long to notice?”

Several state and federal agencies, including the FBI and the federal Bureau of Reclamation, declined to speak with Jessica for her subscriber exclusive article, which you can read here.

Today’s top stories

How an irrigation official allegedly stole $25 million worth of water from a federal canal (1)

Pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrators clash in a demonstration, near where pro-Palestinian students have maintained a tent encampment for days at UCLA on Sunday.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

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Campus protests

  • Hundreds of pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators gathered at UCLA Sunday for dueling Gaza protests.
  • The day before, protests at USC remained peaceful after the campus was closed.
  • UC has rejected calls for Israel-related divestment and boycotts driving pro-Palestinian protests.
  • College protesters want “amnesty.” At stake: Tuition, legal charges, grades and graduation.
  • University protests dominate media coverage, obscuring the true horror of Gaza war.

Climate and environment

  • Chuckwalla National Monument would protect a swath of California desert and preserve a sacred land.
  • Saying the stakes could not be higher, Newsom to speak at Vatican climate summit.
  • Mosquito season is upon us. So why are Southern California officials releasing more of them?

Housing

  • A law that ended single-family zoning has been struck down for five Southern California cities.
  • In L.A., thousands of newer apartments have rent caps. Tenants don’t always know.

More big stories

  • Hollywood’s crew union negotiations have gone well so far. Now the hard part begins.
  • A new poll finds many O.C. residents are skeptical of election results, potentially swaying key races.
  • Airlines will now be required to give automatic refunds for canceled and delayed flights.
  • Kratom products have gone unregulated in California, unnerving both fans and critics.

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  • Steve Lopez: As some nursing homes cry poverty, what can be done about increased staffing requirements?
  • George Skelton: We’re wiping out the Southern California steelhead trout. Time to fix that.
  • Robin Abcarian: How Santa Monica’s Rape Treatment Center revolutionized the way we treat victims of sexual assault.
  • Gustavo Arellano: My mami’s hard life, cut short right when it was about to get really good.
  • Jackie Calmes: That scowl. The gag order. A frightened juror. Who’s on trial, a former president or a mob boss?
  • Editorial: Reversal of Harvey Weinstein’s conviction is disappointing, but a fair justice system is important.
  • Opinion: USC’s ‘security risk’ rationale to thwart peaceful protest is not justified.
  • Doyle McManus: President Biden’s big campaign promises come with a warning label.

Today’s great reads

How an irrigation official allegedly stole $25 million worth of water from a federal canal (2)

A suspect, seen in CCTV footage, is wanted for his alleged involvement in a series of armored car robberies between February 2022 and February 2023.

(FBI)

Painter suits, assault rifles and zip ties: How an armored car heist crew stole millions. A sophisticated robbery crew targeted armored cars in a series of heists across Los Angeles County — until one member turned up dead and another leaped off a third-floor balcony as police closed in.

More great reads

  • California climbers train for Mt. Everest from the comfort of their own beds.

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How can we make this newsletter more useful? Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.

For your downtime

How an irrigation official allegedly stole $25 million worth of water from a federal canal (3)

(Abby Wilson)

Going out

  • 👶 Want to go hiking with a newborn? Here’s how to keep your baby safe on the trails.
  • 🪄 Need a little hope? Geffen Playhouse magic show proves hope is more than an illusion.

Staying in

  • 📚 If the world has gone digital, why do so many of us still want cookbooks?
  • 🧑‍🍳 Here’s a recipe for okra gumbo.
  • ✏️ Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games.

And finally ... a great photo

Show us your favorite place in California! We’re running low on submissions. Send us photos that scream California and we may feature them in an edition of Essential California.

How an irrigation official allegedly stole $25 million worth of water from a federal canal (4)

Compton Cattle Drivers David Caballero and his sister, Jasmine Caballero, are led by their niece Daniela Marin, who is celebrating her 3rd birthday, as they parade their inflatable animals in the Compton Cowboy area on opening day of the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio on Friday.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Today’s great photo is from Times photographer Allen J. Schaben, who captured this fun moment during the opening day of the Stagecoach Country Music Festival. Check out more great visual moments from the festival here.

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Have a great day, from the Essential California team

Ryan Fonseca, reporter
Monte Morin, environment, health and science editor

Check our top stories, topics and the latest articles on latimes.com.

How an irrigation official allegedly stole $25 million worth of water from a federal canal (2024)

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