Pubdate: Sat, 12 Apr 2014
Source: Press Democrat, The (Santa Rosa, CA)
Copyright: 2014 The Press Democrat
Author: Glenda Anderson, The Press Democrat


Streams in Northern California's prime marijuana-growing watersheds
likely will be sucked dry this year if pot cultivation isn't
curtailed, experts say.

"Essentially, marijuana can consume all the water. Every bit of it,"
said state Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Scientist Scott
Bauer, who specializes in salmon recovery and is working on a study of
the issue.

The findings, expected to be released soon, shed new light on a
massive, largely unregulated industry in California that has been
blamed for polluting streams and forests with pesticides and trash and
for bulldozing trees and earth to make clearings for gardens.

A sharp increase in water-intensive pot cultivation, exacerbated by
drought conditions, adds to the habitat degradation and threatens to
undo decades of costly fish restoration efforts, Bauer said.

"The destruction of habitat is actually quite staggering," said
Patrick Foy, a spokesman with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Last year, 24 North Coast salmon-bearing tributaries were reported to
have gone dry, Bauer said, though not all were verified by the agency.

Even without drought, there isn't going to be enough water to meet the
pot industry's growing demand, Bauer said.

Just the illegal marijuana plants confiscated in California by law
enforcement in recent years - between 2 million and 4 million annually
- - use upward of 1.8 billion gallons - or about 600,000 water tanker
trucks over their five-month growing season, based on the average
water usage documented in the study.

That amount is enough to stanch the seasonal flow of many small creeks
in the region, potentially stranding the young salmon and steelhead
that decades of taxpayer-funded efforts have sought to restore.

"It's really an important issue for fish," Bauer said. "We've invested
a lot of money in these salmon and steelhead stock."

The North Coast sits at the center of the escalating environmental
crisis. Its remote forests and seemingly ample water supplies have
long made the region famed territory for West Coast pot cultivation,
earning three counties - Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity - the
much-trumpeted "Emerald Triangle" moniker.

That notoriety is now marked, however, by the signs of widespread
environmental degradation, endangering the region's clear,
free-running streams and the wildlife that depends on them.

"I think it's really important that this industry, which has brought
so much wealth to our communities and the region, take responsibility
for its impacts," said Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of
the Eel River.

The state study Bauer led examined three watersheds in Humboldt County
and one in Mendocino County, all of them renowned for marijuana
cultivation. They include two near Redway, one near Orick and one that
includes Willits.

The Redwood Creek watershed near Orick drains into the ocean. The
other three watersheds feed the Eel River.

Using satellite images, researchers determined that an average of
30,000 plants were growing in each of the four watersheds in 2012, an
increase since 2009 of 75 percent to 100 percent, Bauer said.

"We were able to count every plant and measure every greenhouse,"
Bauer said. The pot gardens they found ranged in size from 10 plants
to hundreds, he said.

The greenhouse-plant counts are estimates, based on the size of the

Researchers estimate each plant consumes 6 gallons of water a day. At
that rate, the plants were siphoning off 180,000 gallons of water per
day in each watershed - altogether more than 160 Olympic-sized
swimming pools over the average 150-day growing cycle for outdoor plants.

"We're still fairly shocked," by the results, Bauer

Some marijuana advocates have taken issue with the 6-gallon-per-plant
estimate, saying daily water use is considerably less. But Tim Blake,
founder of the North Coast's Emerald Cup cannabis competition, said
mature, tree-sized plants need closer to 15 gallons a day.

Plants grown in inland Mendocino County, where it's hot in the summer,
will use more water, while those in cooler regions can use less, Blake
said. He estimates it takes 60,000 gallons to 75,000 gallons to raise
25 plants, the current limit for medicinal marijuana in Mendocino County.

Sheriff Tom Allman has estimated there are more than 1 million
marijuana plants being illegally grown annually just in Mendocino
County. That doesn't include medical marijuana gardens.

Water and wildlife officials don't base their investigations on
whether the marijuana being grown is for medical purposes. Instead,
they look at the violation of laws meant to protect natural resources,
including forests, soil and streams.

"If the operator is not in compliance with environmental laws, then
they're not legal. That's the way I look at it," said Stormer Feiler,
an environmental scientist with the North Coast Regional Water Quality
Control Board.

The new study escalates scrutiny of North Coast pot cultivation and is
likely to inflame a debate that has raged for years among supporters
and foes of marijuana farms. The issue has even split growers in the
industry, which has an annual estimated value that varies widely, from
$10 billion to over $120 billion.

Until now, few official statistics have been available to inform the
water-use discussion about marijuana. That is unlike the attention on
other land-intensive industries, including the North Coast's famed
wine crop, where water use has been documented and watched for years.

But with logging activity on the decline across much of the region and
a thriving black market for pot - plus state-sanctioned recreational
marijuana sales in Washington and Colorado - the spread of cannabis
cultivation is now seen by many environmentalists and government
scientists as the greatest threat to forests and streams damaged by
decades of heavy human use.

"There's no real question the marijuana industry is now the biggest
single sector in terms of our concerns," said Greacen, Friends of the
Eel River director.

He said regulating the industry and its water use would go a long way
toward fixing the problem.

If growers collected all their water during the rainy season and
stored it in permitted tanks or ponds - like many other farmers -
marijuana's water consumption would not be such an issue, Greacen said.

Blake, the Emerald Cup founder, agreed. He said most locally based
growers are conscientious, both about staying within plant limits and
using their own springs or buying tanks of water. But there are others
who buy, rent or trespass on water-short properties and then divert
water illegally to grow their crops, he said. Law enforcement
officials say such growers also tap into neighbors' springs and water

"It's the big commercial growers that are giving all the people who
have been doing a good job up here a bad name," Blake said.

Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of the National Organization for the
Reform of Marijuana Laws, a group that advocates for marijuana
legalization, said growers are taking too much of the blame for the
state's water woes.

"I don't think marijuana is responsible for most of the water problems
in California," he said. But, if the marijuana plant counts cited in
the study are correct, "that could have an impact" in those
watersheds, he acknowledged.

Wildlife officials are quick to say that many local marijuana growers
are following the rules.

But there are quite a few who don't.

Fish and Wildlife officials last year investigated 264
marijuana-growing operations in the state and helped remove 129
illegal dams being used to irrigate pot, said Capt. Nathaniel Arnold,
who runs the department's statewide marijuana team.

Of those operations, about 70 were in Lake and Mendocino counties, he

North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board officials investigate
about 30 marijuana-related cases a year, said Feiler. The board
oversees all or parts of Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Trinity, Humboldt,
Glenn, Del Norte, Siskiyou, Shasta and Modoc counties.

Agency officials say they are limited in what they can accomplish
because they are outnumbered by marijuana-growing offenders.

"We just don't have enough staff" to investigate every complaint,
Feiler said.

The cases often take years to investigate and prosecute.

State regulators recently worked on three cases, each involving an
unauthorized dam on one tributary to the Navarro River in Comptche,
west of Ukiah.

Another case involves a Willits-area property rented to marijuana
growers who used bulldozers to clear several acres of forest.

On Friday, the Oakland landowner, Joung Min Yi, reached a settlement
with the state that requires him to pay $56,404 in penalties for state
and federal water code violations.

He also is required to restore the land, work that has reportedly cost
more than $80,000, Feiler said.

Most cases pursued by water regulators are resolved through civil
fines rather than criminal charges, in part because it requires fewer
resources, he said.

Marijuana growers aren't the only ones taking water without
permission. Last year, a Mendocino County vineyard was fined $33,800
for diverting water from an unnamed creek into its irrigation reservoir.

Legislators have proposed stronger environmental protection measures
in response to the problem. Pending state legislation would boost
funding for water and wildlife investigations connected to illegal
marijuana cultivation.

In Mendocino County, Sheriff Allman has initiated a water theft
hotline and said cases are being being vigorously prosecuted. The
District Attorney's Office does not have statistics available on water
prosecutions, spokesman Mike Geniella said.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife has put together a team dedicated
to dealing with marijuana, Foy said. Water and wildlife officials also
are asking marijuana growers to learn and follow water regulations.
The State Water Resources Control Board website has information about
obtaining permits to collect and store water.

The permits and requirements apply to any site preparation work,
"regardless of crop," the state website notes.

Still, regulators and environmentalists are concerned that the
explosion of marijuana in the region, without greater controls, will
ruin the landscape for everyone.

"It's the tragedy of the commons," Bauer said.
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