Pubdate: Thu, 30 Apr 2015
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts

Despite Law Enforcement Reports, Marijuana Is Relatively Water-Friendly.


Last week, 60 law enforcement officers raided a massive and 
sophisticated illegal marijuana grow operation in Tulare County. The 
bust - 49 greenhouses, 12,000 plants, 50 pounds of processed product, 
and 2,600 pounds of "partially processed" marijuana - is one of the 
biggest in recent memory. It also provided an unwitting preview of 
what commercial cannabis cultivation will look like in 
post-legalization California: large farms on cheap real estate in the 
Central Valley, near highways and population centers, using the sun.

No news report on a drug seizure is complete without a dollar amount 
for what the drugs are worth. Based on a formula of $1,000 per pound 
and two pounds per plant, this was a $27 million operation, Tulare 
County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux told reporters. Those figures are 
almost always inflated. The temptation may be too much to resist; 
after all, the bigger the number, the better the bust for the cops. 
And the official math is rarely questioned by the public or media.

In this case, the sheriff might have underestimated. If the weed had 
headed out of state, it could have commanded 200 percent to 300 
percent of what Boudreaux reported.

But Boudreaux had something else, something that today registers even 
more outrage in drought-stricken California. The grow, the sheriff 
said, also sucked down 61,555 gallons of water a day, almost 1.5 
million gallons in April alone, enough water to supply 153 families of four.

It's not enough to be blamed for the corruption of the youth. 
Marijuana is now also responsible for the corruption of California's 

Blaming weed farms for the drought will be the new normal. As the 
multibillion dollar cannabis industry continues to expand during the 
driest period in recorded California history, marijuana farmers' 
contributions to the drought will be regular features of drug bust reports.

In the parched farm country of Tulare, where for the second year in a 
row pistachio and almond growers will receive a fraction of the water 
they normally enjoy, this hits home. Even in the Bay Area, where 
water use is the stingiest in the state, this will resonate.

Those water use figures are also far too high. They're based on a 
formula that gained mainstream traction last year: six gallons of 
water per plant per day. It's an easy equation that marijuana experts 
now deride as absurd, yet it has been repeated in the media with 
almost no scrutiny, in outlets including Mother Jones.

The number originated with good intentions. Watching streams go dry 
in pot-growing country in Mendocino and Humboldt counties - with 
habitat for coho salmon and steelhead trout disappearing along with 
it - state Fish and Wildlife scientist Scott Bauer sought to quantify 
the effect cannabis cultivation had on these vanishing waterways.

His was the first serious effort - and he had almost no data to go 
on. This was uncharted territory for official sources. Even the DEA 
had only rough estimates for how much water their favorite 
eradication target uses.

So Bauer used the best estimate available: 22.7 liters per plant per 
day. That figure comes from the best possible source: marijuana 
growers, who published the number in never-adopted guidelines for 
regulating cultivation in Humboldt County.

Those same growers say today that the figure is a "worst-case" 
estimate that was never meant to be an industry-wide average or 
representative of typical water use.

A plant in the early stages of development would be drowned by six 
gallons of water, as would most mature plants in an indoor 
cultivation operation, where plants are much smaller than the 
10-foot-tall monsters Bauer and law enforcement encounter in the 
Northern California backcountry.

The best way to compute cannabis's water use, growers say, is to work 
backwards from its final output.

"We think: one gallon per pound, per day," says Hezekiah Allen, the 
Humboldt County native responsible for the six-gallon figure. As a 
representative for marijuana growers in Sacramento in his role today 
as executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, Allen has 
good reason to correct the record. "With a 150-day average growing 
season, that translates to 150 gallons per pound."

That would mean the Tulare plants, if fully mature and delivering a 
two-pound output, used closer to two gallons of water per day, not 
five as the lawmen contend.

Not every marijuana grower agreed with the one gallon per pound per 
day formula. Indoor growers interviewed by SF Weekly gave a range of 
water use, from about 150 gallons per pound to as much as 450 gallons 
per pound (assuming that the water from three 75-gallon flushing 
cycles was not recycled).

But even at 450 gallons per pound - or about one gallon per gram of 
finished product - cannabis is, pound-for-pound, one of the state's 
driest highs.

Consider: Three grams of high-grade cannabis is today enough to 
satisfy a dozen people. Compare that to other treasured California 
pleasures, like wine (between 14.2 and 15.3 gallons per glass, 
according to a UC Davis researcher), beef (110 gallons per 
quarter-pound burger), and almonds (the notorious one gallon per nut).

Not that all cannabis growers are environmentalists. Far from it. 
Marijuana cultivation certainly takes an environmental toll, and 
water wasters should be punished. But the public also needs realistic 
figures - something that has historically been lacking from law 
enforcement accounts, and absolutely needed today as the cannabis 
industry grows during these epic dry times.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom