Officials with the Nueces County Water Control and Improvement District No. 3 are stepping up their efforts to battle a growing problem with illegal tampering of water meters.

District Manager Philip Richard said last week that crews usually remove the meters themselves when an account becomes delinquent. However, some residents have been getting reckless when it comes to circumventing the system, he added.

"We've found automotive air conditioning tubing, radiator hoses, garden hoses - just piping of all sorts," Richard said. "They're very creative."

Those individuals will connect the hose, known by water officials as a "straight shot," to the main water line and then into their households in order to illegally gain access to fresh water, the district manager said. But there is a danger to countless other residents being created by the illegal connection, he added.

"Stealing water, itself, is a crime," Richard said. "But (with a straight shot), they don't have any way to prevent backflow.

"If there's a bad leak somewhere, it can actually create backflow or siphon bacteria into the water system."

It's because of that danger that Water District officials will be taking some residents to court if a meter is found to be tampered with after being disconnected. In addition to a $25 tampering fee, any damage to valve meters or blocking devices will have to be paid for by the resident.

Also, a criminal mischief charge could also be filed, which is a Class B Misdemeanor and carries a punishment of up to 180 days in the county jail and/or up to a $2,000 fine.

"With criminal mischief charges being filed, that really puts some teeth into the law," Richard said.

The district manager said he is hoping the latest measures being taken, along with reducing the number of hot checks and fraudulent accounts being started for delinquent customers, will help lower the costs for other law-abiding customers.

Richard said the water district loses nearly $1,500 a month to meter tampering because there is no way to tell when the water is illegally turned on to a household that hasn't paid its bill.

"The meter tampering is the biggest problem by a long-shot and it's been on the rise," Richard said. "When we lose money like that, the other ratepayers have to make up for that."