Pubdate: Sat, 13 Jun 2015
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Los Angeles Times
Author: Lee Romney


A North Coast Proposal Is Aimed at Ensuring That Marijuana Growers 
Are Regulated Like Any Other Sector

WILLOW CREEK, Calif. - The parking lot at the golf course began 
filling by evening - a procession of raised trucks coated in 
backcountry dust, an aging red Honda with a "Forever Stoked" bumper sticker.

But the 150 or so visitors hadn't come to this Humboldt County hill 
town to play a round. They were marijuana growers, seeking to learn 
how to do the right thing for watersheds increasingly strained by the 
state's epic drought.

Pamphlets on best practices to achieve sustainability in the "green 
rush" and primers on registering water rights covered a table inside the bar.

The event was organized by California Cannabis Voice Humboldt, the 
600member affiliate of a statewide political action committee formed 
last year. The theme: stepping out of the shadows to get regulated.

"I've lived my whole life an outlaw, and I'm not going to die an 
outlaw," Patrick Murphy, a bearded, 38-year-old cultivator who serves 
as the group's co-director of community outreach, told the crowd. 
"I'm going to die a farmer, a proud farmer, a farmer of cannabis."

The celebratory pig roast last month, where growers and non-growers 
mingled with local politicians, comes as a transformation of sorts 
sweeps cannabis country.

Marijuana cultivation is illegal under federal law and only narrowly 
permitted under state medical marijuana law. With as many as 30,000 
grow sites in the state's northern counties, selective criminal 
enforcement has long taken place, and that is not expected to change.

But state regulators and local officials in the Emerald Triangle 
acknowledge that the old way of doing things - which often paired 
environmental inspection with criminal enforcement - has not yielded 
good results. Instilling fear in growers, they say, has done little 
to encourage them to follow sound environmental practices.

The concerns include silt runoff from poorly maintained roads and 
stream crossings, improper use of fertilizers and pesticides, illegal 
water diversions and inadequate water storage.

The new approach comes as drought threatens the endangered Coho 
salmon and steelhead trout, lawmakers weigh a flurry of proposals to 
regulate medical marijuana, and the question of legalizing 
recreational pot use is expected to make it onto the November 2016 ballot.

The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is poised to 
adopt a program that would require all marijuana cultivators to 
register, pay a fee, follow strict environmental guidelines and seek 
appropriate permits from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Prompted by Gov. Jerry Brown, it is believed to be the first effort 
of its kind in the nation aimed at ensuring that marijuana growers on 
private land are treated like any other sector by environmental 
regulators, regardless of the legality of their crop.

The goal is to bring growers into the fold with collaboration and 
incentives and not rely solely on enforcement once the damage is done.

Many Humboldt County growers surely will refuse to comply. Some are 
outsiders from as far afield as Bulgaria who care little for the 
environment or their neighbors. Others have lived through decades of 
criminal busts and eradication campaigns and hold fast to their 
suspicions of government.

But a surprising number of growers are coming aboard, filing for 
permits with state water and fish and wildlife agencies - and 
anticipating a day when the black-market dollars that now flood the 
county will be legitimate.

It's a day, Murphy imagined for the gathered crowd, when boutique 
Humboldt County bud branded as "fish-friendly" will make it to market 
- - and schools and government programs will be flush with tax revenues 
from the newly legal sales.

Come legalization, he added, that might just keep big money interests 
from squeezing out thousands of Humboldt pot farmers known for the 
quality product they have long produced.

"It's time for us to show the rest of the community who we are," 
Murphy said. "We're your friends, we're your neighbors and, given the 
chance, we can be the best contributing members of this community."

A coordinated deal

The drought has added urgency to the regulatory push.

Research by the state Fish and Wildlife Department released in March 
found that demand by marijuana-growing operations, estimated in 
gallons needed per plant, had overwhelmed available water supplies in 
three of four watersheds in Humboldt County. Streams had run dry, 
placing certain threatened fish and amphibians at risk.

"We already are exceeding the capacity of our fisheries and a big, 
big piece of that is drought," said Scott Greacen, executive director 
of the nonprofit Friends of the Eel River. "But it's only in drought 
that you see what the limits of the watershed are. We're there. Big time."

Complaints about grows began to surge five years ago, said Matt St. 
John, executive officer of the North Coast water board. Inspections 
along with demands for corrective action and penalties followed. Fish 
and Wildlife was doing the same. But the problem demanded a broader, 
coordinated solution.

Brown took interest, and a pilot project was born, going into effect 
last summer. The Legislature has funded it through June 2017, though 
the Marijuana Watershed Protection Act written by Assemblyman Jim 
Wood (DHealdsburg) would expand it and make it permanent.

It calls on the agencies to work together, educate growers and 
coordinate enforcement actions that focus on bringing cultivators 
into environmental compliance.

The centerpiece is the sweeping regulatory program now under 
consideration by the water board. A vote is scheduled for August.

"I think we're all aware that this is something completely different 
than anything we have ever done before," board member William Massey 
said at a recent meeting. "We don't care if it's pot or pineapples 
[being grown]. It's what it does to water quality."

In addition to registering and meeting water-quality standards, 
growers would have to store enough water in the winter to last from 
May 15 through Oct. 31, when they would be barred from tapping streams.

The Fish and Wildlife Department, meanwhile, already has seen a jump 
in requests for permits as they participate in joint enforcement 
actions with water board counterparts.

Of 14 sites visited in January in the Eel River watershed's Sproul 
Creek, which has run dry the last two years, 90% of those targeted 
have since applied, said Scott Bauer, a senior environmental 
scientist for the Fish and Wildlife Department.

"Last year we could count them on one hand," Bauer said. "This year 
there are constant calls."

Growing compliance

Key to the program's success are outside watershed experts and civil 
engineers who are authorized to serve as intermediaries, crafting 
water resource protection plans and carrying out needed mitigation.

Including them, St. John said, puts more "eyes on the ground," and 
far more growers are likely to comply if they don't have to invite 
government inspectors onto their land.

Praj White, 42, is a civil engineer who grew up in Humboldt's hills 
and watched the weed industry bloom with "hippie redneck open farms," 
burrow underground during years of heavy enforcement, and now begin 
to "unfold back into the daylight."

The clients he visits have ranged from "fairly compliant," he said, 
to newcomers who "rented a bulldozer, found some area best suited to 
sun" and proceeded to violate a host of stream and wildlife 
protection regulations.

On a recent day, White met an old-time grower in the Van Duzen 
watershed. Two of his neighbors also showed up wanting evaluations 
and by midday "two other trucks came and joined us."

Greacen worried that the growers willing to comply represent "only a 
fraction of the real industry," and that agencies will never raise 
the needed dollars through fees to properly enforce the myriad sites.

The environmental advocate is proposing that the water board cap all 
but the smallest tier of grows by watershed, compelling cultivators 
to work together to "fix the stuff you have collectively wrecked" 
before granting additional permits.

But White believes that if a certified "salmon safe" product can be 
tracked from farm to a legal marketplace, the good actors will begin 
to turn in the bad.

More than two years ago, Murphy invited environmental regulators onto 
his land to line up permits for an operation that would defy 
stereotypes of growers as "eco-terrorists" - one with roads that 
don't crumble into streams and enough stored water to get through 
drought-stricken summers.

The duo has since been working to craft a county cannabis land use 
ordinance for parcels larger than five acres. In April, their group 
hosted State Board of Equalization members Fiona Ma and George Runner 
- - who together represent 53 of California's 58 counties - to talk taxation.

"We're craving not just regulation but aboveground benefits like crop 
insurance, legal routes of sale, tax ID numbers," Murphy said.

Out of the shadows

At the Willow Creek event, cultivators used to hiding behind locked 
gates chatted with watershed experts about how to build up their soil 
to prevent nutrient leaching, properly store rainwater and protect 
juvenile salmon.

"It's fascinating and terrifying," said Terra Joy Carver, 31, who 
heads the grower group's women's alliance and until a few months ago 
had never told a stranger what she did for a living. "Yet Colorado 
and Washington are about to tell us how to do this, and take away our 
whole heritage. If we don't stand up for who we are, we will lose it, 
and it's not just our livelihood, it's our entire community."

Carver has persuaded 150 women to sign on and is organizing training 
on business plans, branding and marketing. In April, she helped build 
the California Cannabis Voice Humboldt float for the Yes We Cann! 
parade at Humboldt's Cannifest - in blazing green.

It was, she said, "like our pride parade."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom