Former California water official pleads guilty to conspiring to steal water from irrigation canal

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A former California water official has pleaded guilty to conspiring to steal water in a deal with federal prosecutors in the state’s crop-rich Central Valley.

The Los Angeles Times reports Tuesday that 78-year-old Dennis Falaschi, who used to head the Panoche Water District, entered the plea in federal court in Fresno. He also pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return.

Falaschi was accused in a case that alleged that more than $25 million in water was stolen over two decades when it was siphoned from a federal irrigation canal through a secret pipe and sold to farmers and other water districts. The Panoche Water District supplies irrigation for farmland in Fresno and Merced counties — much of it from the federal Delta-Mendota canal.

Authorities said in court documents that Falaschi wasn’t the only one taking water, but did not specify who else was involved. They estimated Falaschi stole less than $3.5 million in water, a small portion of what they initially alleged had been stolen.

The case comes as California has embarked on a yearslong effort to conserve water use by passing a groundbreaking law to regulate groundwater pumping, encouraging urban users to replace thirsty lawns with more drought-friendly landscaping and ramping up water storage efforts to help the state navigate expected dry years ahead.

The state moved to reduce groundwater use after overpumping led farmers to drill deeper for water and some rural wells to grow dry. The prospect of pumping limits has worried California farmers who grow much of the country’s fresh produce.

Falaschi, who has agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in any additional investigations, is scheduled to be sentenced in September. He declined to speak with the newspaper after Tuesday’s hearing.

Assistant US Attorney Joseph D. Barton also declined to comment.