Sales of water storage tanks have spiked on the North Coast as rural residents, already faced with declining wells, springs and reservoirs, brace for what could be another drought year.

"They're hoarding water," said Rich Hutchison, a plumbing and electrical buyer for Friedman's home improvement stores.

Water storage tank sales increased by about 40 percent at Friedman's stores in December, he said. The Ukiah store alone sold 20 tanks in December, a 50 percent increase from the same time last year, Hutchison said.

The store carries tanks that range in size from 500 gallons to 5,000 gallons and cost from $369 to $2,899. Its best seller is a 2,500 gallon tank, Hutchison said.

At the Tank Depot store near Ukiah, sales increased by about 30 percent in December, said sales representative Aaron York.

"We've sold 30 tanks in the last two weeks," he said.

The Ukiah Friedman's store typically sells more water storage tanks than does the company's Sonoma County stores, Hutchison said.

Sales normally are highest during the summer months, when marijuana growing is in full swing, he said. Summer tank sales have been as high as 127 a month, Hutchison said.

Pot growers have been known to illegally tap into streams and steal water for their crops, according to police and environmental officials.

Agricultural officials fear water thefts may increase if the drought continues.

York expects water tanks sales to increase further in the coming weeks as North Coast water agencies declare drought emergencies and threaten to impose water restrictions.

Some rural residents are preparing for a water shortage while others already are suffering the consequences of record low rainfall.

Streams, wells, springs and reservoirs are fast going dry, said Mendocino County Agricultural Commissioner Chuck Morse.

Water storage tanks normally aren't considered sufficient for watering crops but York said he's getting inquiries from grape growers who are considering buying multiple, 5,000-gallon tanks.

Morse said area ranchers are trucking in water and tanks to supply their livestock.

"Everybody needs storage," he said.

Hutchison and York say storing water in tanks is a good idea but people shouldn't wait until there aren't enough resources to go around.

Both men are fans of rain water harvesting, which has been gaining popularity in California as water supplies shrink. It's already widely used in water-short areas such as Australia.

It's easy, inexpensive and efficient to capture rain water from roofs, they said. An inch of rain falling on a 2,000-square-foot roof can generate 1,200 gallons of water, Hutchison said.

Small systems that store 65 gallons cost about $170. A 2,500-gallon system sells for about $1,100.

Rain water harvesting rebates are available in some areas, including Santa Rosa.

Rain water harvesting demonstrations are being held at Friedman's stores in Sonoma and Santa Rosa Jan. 18 and and in Ukiah Jan. 19.

(You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com.)