Pubdate: Sun, 30 Mar 2014
Source: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock, AR)
Copyright: 2014 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.
Note: Accepts letters to the editor from Arkansas residents only
Author: Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau


Californians Say Plots Worsen Drought

WASHINGTON - In drought-hit California, marijuana growers are feeling 
the heat, accused of using too much water for their thirsty plants 
and of polluting streams and rivers with their pesticides and fertilizers.

State officials say a pot plant soaks up an average of 6 gallons of 
water per day, worsening a shortage caused by one of the biggest 
droughts on record. They say the situation is particularly acute 
along California's North Coast, where the growing pressure to 
irrigate pot threatens salmon and other fish.

"This industry - and it is an industry - is completely unregulated," 
said Scott Bauer, a fisheries biologist with the California 
Department of Fish and Wildlife. "What I just hope is that the 
watersheds don't go up in smoke before we get things regulated and 
protect our fish and wildlife."

California is also the most popular state for pot producers to grow 
crops in national forests, accounting for 86 percent of the nearly 1 
million plants federal officials seized in 2012.

"Those are lands that you and I own," said Rep. Mike Thompson, 
D-Calif. "And when people are growing dope there and guarding their 
operations with guns and the likes, and sometimes with booby traps, 
we can't use the land that we own. It happens all over."

The situation is a complicated one in California, which passed the 
nation's first medical marijuana law in 1996, allowing people to 
possess and grow pot, even though the federal government still bans the drug.

Medical growers who tend their crops on private property object to 
getting lumped in with the illegal growers who are trespassing on 
federal lands.

They say they're a scapegoat in the debate.

"It's really easy to point fingers at a very large cash crop that's 
completely unregulated. It's one of the main cash crops of the 
state," said Kristin Nevedal of Garberville, Calif., the founding 
chairman of the Emerald Growers Association. She doesn't grow 
marijuana herself but she's the spokesman for the group, which has 
about 400 members.

As part of a drought-fighting plan on Capitol Hill, Thompson and 13 
other members of the U.S. House of Representatives from California 
want to give the Drug Enforcement Administration $3 million to 
eradicate the large marijuana operations in public forests.

In 2012, U.S. officials discovered illegal marijuana plots in 67 
national forests in 20 states, including 252 sites in California. 
Washington and Colorado, the only states that have legalized 
marijuana for recreational use, ranked second and third, 
respectively, followed by Idaho, Georgia and Kentucky.

At raided sites, authorities have found widespread damage, including 
miles of irrigation lines, propane tanks, and rat poison and other 
toxic chemicals that end up in streams.

California Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, a co-sponsor of the 
drought bill, said the forest growers were "operating without any 
environmental awareness."

"They're using the water illegally. They're using the land illegally. 
They're growing an illegal product," Garamendi said. "And they're 
probably protecting that product with illegal weapons."

Nevedal and other marijuana backers said the ultimate solution was 
for Congress to fully legalize the drug, which she said would 
eliminate the need for growers to hide in the wilderness and truck in 
their water.

"When logging was unregulated, we saw horrific environmental 
consequences," she said. "And it's so easy for the media to pick up 
stories of grow sites that have been raided or busted. It's really 
hard to show a contrast of folks who are really doing a good job. 
What is being put out is the small percentage that are really blowing it."

For biologist Bauer, who's been using Google Earth images to study 
the scope of the operations, the link is clear. He said 24 
tributaries of the Eel River in Mendocino and Humboldt counties went 
dry last summer - and all of them had been used to water marijuana operations.

Bauer said it was common to see marijuana growers driving pickups 
with water tanks. And he said state officials last summer had chased 
down reports of trucks with 5,000-gallon tanks siphoning water from 
already-low rivers.

"That was happening all over the place - and good luck trying to 
catch them," he said. "We did catch one person doing it. We tried to 
capture others, but they're pretty wily."

Thompson recalled one brazen theft in Napa Valley two years ago, when 
a marijuana grower laid a pipe across two property lines to hook into 
a neighbor's electrical system to pump water to his crop.

Thompson, along with California's Democratic U.S. Sens. Dianne 
Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and three other House members from the 
state, wants the U.S. Sentencing Commission to create new penalties 
for environmental damage caused by marijuana cultivation. But he said 
the popularity of marijuana in some parts of the state had made it 
difficult to get juries to convict anyone on marijuana-related charges.

"It's hard, because a lot of times if someone is arrested, it's in an 
area where a lot of this is prevalent, and it's not always the 
easiest thing to get a jury of your peers to convict you," Thompson said.

Neither Thompson nor Garamendi said they were ready to fully legalize 
marijuana, though both acknowledged that it would make it easier to 
control growers.

"In Washington state and Colorado, the growing of marijuana becomes 
legal and regulated. That's not the case in California," Garamendi said.

Thompson said he was ready for a debate on the topic. That's likely 
to happen in 2016, if marijuana backers succeed in their plans to get 
legalization on the state ballot.

"If it were legal and regulated, you wouldn't have the growers 
ruining the countryside," Thompson said.

For now, Bauer hopes state lawmakers this spring will approve the 
governor's plan to add another 18 people to the Department of Fish 
and Wildlife and the State Water Resources Control Board to confront 
the issue. Bauer said the state particularly needs more game wardens 
and scientists.

With no end in sight for the state's long drought, Bauer is expecting 
more dry streams.

"We know it's going to be a bleak summer for stream flow and for fish 
and wildlife," he said. "We're going to have to try and make it work."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom