Pubdate: Wed, 12 Aug 2015
Source: East Bay Express (CA)
Copyright: 2015 East Bay Express
Author: Adrian Fernandez Baumann


The state water board has launched an unprecedented program that 
seeks to work cooperatively with cannabis growers, but other 
government agencies just want to raid farms and seize cash.

Trusting government doesn't come easy to Northern California weed 
farmers - not after a drug war that has lasted for four decades.

Yet there they were: sixty or so professional outlaws, sitting in 
folding chairs at the Grange Hall in Laytonville, Mendocino County, 
with their bushy beards, skeptically eyeing the reps from the water board.

The decades-long war on pot has left growers with a habitual distrust 
of power and a culture of secrecy.

Here in Northern California's Emerald Triangle - composed of 
Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties - it can be considered 
impolite to ask someone what he or she does for a living.

After all, the police are explicitly committed to tearing down the 
region's largest industry and employer.

Yet after decades of summer raids, of marines in choppers and 
deputies hauling woodchippers, the triangle has more pot than ever, 
more plants, more pounds.

It's a multi-billion dollar industry that, until this year, has 
flourished with no regulation and no government oversight.

The results of the forty-year experiment in near laissez-faire 
capitalism coupled with intermittent-yet-harsh crackdowns by law 
enforcement are myriad, but in recent years much attention has 
focused on the impact that certain kinds of cannabis cultivation 
inflict on the environment - a phenomenon that, until 2015, had no 
real official solution except for more of the same: raids.

But on this warm spring day at the Grange Hall, the water board reps 
were offering a new strategy: a truce in the old fight.

They were hoping to bring growers out of the woods and out of the 
shadows and work with them.

The crowd looked much like what you'd expect to find in any rural 
American farm community: a mix of old and young, mostly white and 
male. Straw hats, rubber boots, and muddy Carhartts abounded, though 
with a bit of a tie-dye aesthetic mixed in. The talk outside was of 
weather and soil, but with a joint passed around instead of a beer.

After some preamble, the reps from the regional water board went up 
to the front.

Environmental scientist Connor McIntee, a stocky man in his mid 
twenties with a reddish blonde ponytail and beard, and geologist 
Derek Magnuson, also bearded, spoke to the crowd in clumsy 
bureaucratese. They had only been on the job a few months, under a new program.

They were representing the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control 
Board, a semi-autonomous state agency charged with regulating the 
quality of surface waters for all watersheds from Tomales Bay in 
Marin County to the Oregon border.

During the presentation, you could hear the rustle of paper as the 
farmers flipped through the sheaf of new regulations that the state 
was proposing.

Some people took notes, some just listened.

Up front, the informal moderator, Casey O'Neill, encouraged the crowd 
to hear what water board reps had to say. In his early thirties, 
short and wiry, with an energetic sense of humor, O'Neill farms two 
acres of vegetables and cannabis in Mendocino County. A third 
generation cannabis grower and chair of the Emerald Growers 
Association, a trade group for cannabis farmers, he'd helped organize 
the meeting.

O'Neill pointed out that regulation is needed and inevitable, tossing 
out his repeated refrain that "regulation is coming, and it's either 
going to happen to us or by us."

The water board reps' basic pitch: Starting this summer, and going 
fully into effect next spring, the board would regulate cannabis 
cultivation on the basis of environmental impacts.

Growers would be asked to invest time and money in the proper 
stewardship of the land and in repairing damage that had already been 
done. In exchange, the board offered, basically, an understanding: 
the government would give growers time to fix old problems and would 
provide a them with a framework to diagnose and repair issues.

And all of it would be totally, officially, unconcerned with the 
legality of marijuana.

The water board's unprecedented approach to cannabis in California 
this year is based in part on the acknowledgement of a paradox: 
Although the worst actors in the marijuana industry have severely 
damaged the North Coast's environment, growers are the only people 
with enough money - and enough interest in the land - to clean up the 
mess, including the mess they inherited from the state's logging 
industry. In other words, the environment needs pot growers now more 
than ever, and it needs them to keep making money.

Not surprisingly, many growers in the Triangle welcome the water 
board's kinder-gentler approach this year. But they remain wary. And 
for good reason: Other state and local agencies don't appear to be 
ready to work cooperatively with growers and are still relying on 
raids and crackdowns. On June 22, the Mendocino, Humboldt, and 
Trinity county sheriff's departments spearheaded a massive raid on 
growers in the Island Mountain area of the Emerald Triangle, inviting 
the California Department of Fish and Wildlife along to document and 
prosecute environmental crimes.

The water board, however, was not invited.

In other words, state agencies that should be working together are 
instead often working at cross-purposes, and so the atmosphere of 
paranoia and the fear of cooperating with the government continue 
along the North Coast, thereby raising concerns that the water 
board's new strategy will ultimately fail. And if that were to 
happen, Northern California's environmental woes could compound for 
years to come.

Toward the end of the meeting in Laytonville, an older man with a 
long white beard, wearing white Hindu robes, stood up. Swami 
Chaitanya, a representative of the old counter culture, pointed to 
the decades of raids and the continuing resistance of local officials 
and law enforcement to try anything new. Although he urged his fellow 
farmers to work with the water board and organize politically, he 
finished by turning to the reps who led the meeting and shouted: 
"Thank you for coming.

But we're afraid of you."

Northern Californians are familiar with the pat narrative: 
Back-to-the-land hippies of the Seventies became soured by greed and 
then cashed in their old values to exploit the North Coast's pristine 
wilderness for a fast buck. That's an easy story to tell, and it's 
repeated often, but like most easy stories, it's incomplete.

In truth, the drug war and pot prohibition in California have given 
rise to a massive, totally unregulated industry that set up shop in a 
fragile environment that had already been devastated by a century of 
logging and clear-cutting. Logging, it turns out, also birthed an 
ideal set-up for illicit pot farms.

The logging industry had partially tamed the remote, rugged landscape 
by building roads and clearing flat areas that turned out to be 
perfect for homes.

Plus, logging made the land cheap.

By the latter part of the 20th century, many property owners in the 
region were eager to offload land that would not produce timber again 
for several decades.

Hippies grabbed a slice of the homesteading dream, but on land that 
already had severe environmental problems.

During the past one hundred-plus years, the logging industry managed 
to cut down 95 percent of the area's old-growth forests.

Today, the vast majority of forest on the North Coast has been cut 
down at least once. And the second- and third-generation forests that 
replaced them are filled with young thirsty trees.

This "thirsty forests" problem means that less water actually makes 
it into the creeks and streams than before, because the water is 
sucked up and evaporated by young densely packed trees.

Logging also caused massive erosion, filling countless streams with 
dirt. The alterations to the land now inhibit water from percolating 
into the ground, as it once did, and instead, it rushes out to sea. 
With less water soaking into the earth, creeks run dry in summer, 
helping kill off fish migrations.

The Compassionate Care Act of 1996 - Proposition 215 - further 
boosted the North Coast pot-industry and added to the region's 
environmental degradation. For nineteen years, the state has failed 
to create any regulatory framework for marijuana production, leaving 
growers, even ones who strictly produce for medical cannabis 
dispensaries, open to raids.

The recession was another driver for the industry, as people 
scrambled for extra revenue and parts of the state that hadn't been 
traditional production centers entered the weed economy.

And the near legalization of pot in 2010 created yet another little 
boom in production, with many growers convinced that that would be 
their last year to profit from black-market prices.

All this growth has put California in a unique situation as states 
across the West legalize: Rather than starting from scratch as 
Colorado did, California is in the process of trying to normalize and 
regulate an already massive and flourishing industry.

Although accurate numbers are hard to come by, state and industry 
reps estimate that there are now 53,000 cannabis farms in California. 
According to the most conservative estimates, the state's pot 
industry produces $5 billion just in farm sales - not including 
revenues from value-added products or retail.

Others put wholesale production at more than $5 billion in Mendocino 
County alone.

By some estimates, pot is the state's largest cash crop. Surveys 
conducted by industry groups estimate that each farm employs an 
average of 4.5 full-time-equivalent workers, though many are seasonal.

The population of Northern California counties swells by tens of 
thousands each fall with the arrival of "trimmigrants" who harvest 
the annual crop.

In many Northern California counties, marijuana is the largest 
employer, the biggest industry and export, a source of culture, and a 
way of life.

Over the years, state and local agencies have attempted to corral the 
industry and stamp out its culture with raids and crackdowns. 
Humboldt County Sheriff Michael Downey, who has been working in the 
area for decades, said that at one time, the raids appeared to be 
working, and that law enforcement officials "had [the industry] 
pretty much beat back in this county.

The marijuana going out of the county was pretty low."

But he added: "I'm not foolish enough to think that we would ever 
really win that war ... [but] it wasn't much of an industry back 
then. But today?

To send [sheriff's deputies] out now is like, really? What are we 
really accomplishing now? We could do this every day and never make a 
huge impact."

Still, the raids and prohibition have continued and have not only 
made the environmental issues in the region harder to solve, but also 
have made them worse.

For growers, if you have a decent chance of being raided in the 
future, it makes sense to score as much profit as quickly as you can. 
And if sticking around for the long run means probably getting 
busted, then spending time on environmental cleanup looks like a dumb 
idea. Moreover, if your money is illegal and you can't put it in a 
bank, or invest directly in the local community without laundering 
it, then why not buy another lot with cash, build some more 
greenhouses, and expand your enterprise?

These perverse incentives have, in turn, resulted in an explosion of 
pesticide use, especially by growers who trespass on private or 
public land to cultivate black-market weed; more illegal water 
diversions from creeks and streams to irrigate pot grows; and more 
erosion caused by hillside farming and road-grading.

The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (one of nine 
such boards statewide) regulates and monitors a host of water-related 
issues, from the quality of municipal drinking water to the quality 
of sewage plant discharge, and importantly for the North Coast, the 
quality of the water flowing in streams and rivers.

For years, however, the board had been underfunded, understaffed, and 
unable to contend with problems caused by the proliferation of 
environmentally damaging pot grows.

But last year's state budget set aside $3.3 million for the regional 
board, the state water board, and the California Department of Fish 
and Wildlife to begin tackling the problem.

The North Coast board has hired several new people, including the two 
reps who attended the Grange Hall meeting in Laytonville. And board 
officials have been hammering out their main regulatory tool: the 
"waiver of discharge," a document that will establish a new set of 
industry specific rules.

The new regs include a tiered system of compliance, with spot-checks 
and substantial fines in cases of non-compliance, but also a grace 
period and a path for existing farms to gradually come into 
compliance. The board will inspect farms and rank them on the basis 
of potential or existing environmental harm. Farmers have to pay a 
fee to enroll in the program, and the amount they pay is dependent on 
the danger and severity of the operation.

Growers also must promise to make certain improvements to their land.

The new system also includes a role for third-party inspections, and 
a cottage industry has already sprung up here, with hundreds of 
growers hiring watershed consultants to help them work through the 
bureaucracy and science of environmental compliance.

At the Laytonville meeting, several growers asked why they were being 
held to a higher standard than other forms of agriculture, especially 
vineyards. Water board officials have responded by saying that a 
similar plan is being developed for the wine industry, and that the 
regulations for pot farmers were indicative of a new way of 
attempting to regulate several industries situated in delicate environments.

"We should not be more onerous than we are to the grape growers," 
said John Corbett, chair of the North Coast board. "There's two parts 
to equity: one, the growers comply with the water quality laws. The 
second part is those laws are the same for them as for other people."

And overall, at least from politically organized groups of marijuana 
farmers, such as the Emerald Growers Association (EGA), and smaller 
county groups, including California Cannabis Voice Humboldt (CCVH) 
and Mendocino Cannabis Policy Council, support for the water board's 
program has been positive. "The water board staff are our preferred 
regulators because they don't carry guns and badges," explained 
O'Neill of the EGA.

But will any of this work? While many growers, especially those who 
have taken great care to safeguard the environment, are hopeful, some 
environmentalists are not so sure. Scott Greacen, executive director 
of the environmental group Friends of the Eel River, said he's 
broadly supportive of the water board's initiative, but it appears to 
be too little, too late.

He points out that many growers have not even enrolled in the water 
board's existing programs.

And while the board has found some enthusiastic adopters of its new 
program, the industry is huge and unwieldy. Plus, even if the board 
achieves higher enrollment over time, some fish species might go 
extinct in only two or three years, he said. So while a system made 
up of farms run by people like O'Neill might be sustainable, such a 
scenario doesn't seem likely at this point.

Greacen believes that environmental cleanup needs to happen faster 
and that the system needs to better distinguish between good farms 
and bad ones. "We need a really bright line," he said. "We need to be 
able to tell law enforcement, 'This is what's okay, and anything 
bigger than that, go nail them.'"

Earlier this year, there was an indication that local and state 
agencies might join the water board's cooperative approach.

A task force of water board inspectors, Fish and Wildlife game 
wardens, local law enforcement, and other functionaries collaborated 
on organized inspections in the watershed of Sproul Creek in southern 
Humboldt County. The inspections uncovered a variety of violations, 
and water board officials dispatched letters demanding enrollment in 
the board's new program and compliance.

Then on July 20, at a community theater in Garberville, the various 
government agencies held a forum where, in good patriotic American 
style, the public came to yell at the government. There had been some 
major problems with the Sproul inspections, claims of uninformed 
staff, sloppy reporting, and rights violations. Perhaps the biggest 
issue was that the water board's map software had marked local 
property lines wrong, sometimes a third of a mile off from the real 
property line.

On the other hand, as the representatives of the various agencies 
pointed out, this was a starting point.

No one expected to go from no regulations to a thorough regulatory 
framework without growing pains.

Lieutenant Game Warden DeWayne Little fielded questions on behalf of 
Fish and Wildlife. He'd been on the inspection, and has been working 
in the area to protect streams and fish for decades.

He pointed out that inspectors did not cut down any pot plants, even 
though there were reports of grows with several thousand plants.

This, in itself, was somewhat remarkable, given that game wardens are 
sworn law enforcement officers and that Humboldt County sheriff's 
officials accompanied the inspection group.

Little called the Sproul inspections the collaborative project's 
"maiden voyage," and at one point, praised the participants at the 
meeting. "I understand that a lot of you feel victimized by this 
process. ... Each one of us is a private citizen outside of our 
professional lives - I get it." But he added that Sproul was targeted 
for environmental reasons, and because it was one of the watersheds 
likely to get grower buy-in. He said that people who show up to 
public forums are not the problem; it's the people who don't. "With 
that in mind," he said, "look at yourself as a solution, not the 
victims of the situation."

Yet despite Little's overtures to the growers assembled in 
Garberville, Fish and Wildlife is not prepared to give up on the 
raids with law enforcement and fully adopt the water board's new 
program. Kason Grady, an engineer with the regional water board, 
explained: "They (Fish and Wildlife] have their own jurisdiction, and 
they have to proceed doing their eradication efforts according to 
their own priority.

But our agency is taking a different tack, and we're taking a tack 
that's consistent with how we regulate other industries in our region 
- - that is, a permit approach, we don't do eradication, we don't use 
those tools with any of the other industries that we deal with."

Island Mountain is a remote territory where the three counties of the 
Emerald Triangle meet. It's a place where law enforcement is rarely 
seen, and the growers have gone big. As the locals say, "they're 
blowing it up" - with substantial environmental consequences.

During the June 22 raid, sheriff's deputies cut down about 85,000 
plants, and Fish and Wildlife officials charged 97 environmental 
crimes. But only a couple of arrests were made.

Authorities found unpermitted diversions from creeks, awful grading 
practices that quickly erode the land into streams, poorly 
constructed roads and creek crossings that destroy fish habitat, 
dangerous pesticide use, and tons of trash.

Scott Bauer, an environmental scientist for Fish and Wildlife, had 
camped out for the week, going to grows from dawn to dusk. In the 
last few years, he's been on a one-man PR campaign in the fight 
against environmentally damaging dope. Though he tends toward 
technical descriptions of problems, you can hear the frustration in 
his voice, and that he cares deeply about the environment. "It's a 
pretty sad state of affairs," he said. "You're out there and you're 
trying to protect fish and protect wildlife and you see these things 
- - and I hate to say it but I feel like you go through those kind of 
stages where you're distraught and you're upset about it to the point 
where you kind of get desensitized to it. ... It's really hard to do 
it when you do care - because, how much can this keep occurring?

And what are we going to do about it collectively?"

For law enforcement, there are strong incentives to ignore the water 
board's call for cooperation and to just keep raiding.

Asset forfeiture laws allow police to seize large amounts of money 
and assets in pot busts.

In 2014, Mendocino County seized $5.2 million in assets, including 
$3.9 million in cash.

The Mendocino District Attorney's Office takes things even further 
with its "restitution" program, which co-opts a law intended to pay 
for meth lab clean-ups to extract more money from growers.

Basically, the DA approaches busted growers with a deal: Give us some 
cash for each pound confiscated and you get no jail time. The amount 
is negotiable. Officially, it's $50 per plant and $500 per pound, but 
it often ends up in the tens of thousands of dollars.

The funds then get divided up between the DA and the arresting 
agency, creating a revenue stream with little democratic oversight.

Restitution money accounted for more than 10 percent of the 2014 2015 
budget for the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office.

Bauer had told me that I could tag along during a visit to Island 
Mountain, but after he sent me the message, he went out of cellphone 
range. After a couple days, I decided to drive out to find him. I had 
some vague tips about where he might be, but mostly just figured I'd 
ask someone where all the cops were. I stopped in a general store 
where the shopkeeper explained that the store had been empty the last 
few days because everyone had scattered with the raids.

This is the pattern each summer: The police convoy hits the road, 
someone spots it, and within minutes, word courses through the community.

In the general store, various people lamented the scale of grows, the 
brazenness of it, the greed, and, of course, the damage to the 
environment. Yet along with snacks and health food, the store sells 
soil stacked on whole pallets in front.

People denounce pot industry greed all day long, but the nurseries, 
hardware stores, car dealerships, and real estate agents never say 
"no" to the money produced by the green.

As I walked out, the store manager bemoaned the newcomers with their 
giant grows, right before pointing a young man to the pallet of soil.

To the layperson, the environmental problems caused by bad growing 
practices can be subtle -innocuous storage ponds or culverts.

But to Bauer, they represent impending catastrophes.

"The fuse is lit, and come a big El Nino, these things are going to 
unravel and end up in the Eel River. And that's my best explanation 
. ticking time bombs across the landscape," he said. "People abandon 
them and they become a mess and somebody's got to pay for them, 
that's going to need to happen, because some of these sites probably 
can't wait two or three or four years to be cleaned up."

However, after police raids, after the plants have been cut down and 
arrests made, these sites are typically left orphaned, with no 
solution in sight.

And so they, too, remain environmental time bombs across the landscape.

After many miles of paved, then gravel, then dirt road, I came to a 
locked gate. I parked to figure out my next move, when who should 
drive up from the other side of the gate but a convoy of Mendocino 
sheriff's deputies.

They did a good job of pretending I was invisible before shooing me 
away. I didn't have a key to get through the gate, and it was miles 
farther down the road to where the action was, so I headed home.

It's notable that all of these skirmishes between the cops and the 
growers happen far from cities and towns, far from cameras and any 
kind of accountability. What information people do get here consists 
mostly of rumors spread by excitable growers and the official 
accounts of law-enforcement departments that have huge reputational 
and budgetary incentives to juke the stats.

The political representatives for the growers made it widely known 
that raids - a business-as-usual approach - would have a chilling 
effect on the efforts by activists, environmentalists, and water 
board reps to enroll growers in the new program.

In a missive sent out to the EGA mailing list, Hezekiah Allen, 
director of the organization, summed up the feelings of many in the 
community. "Today they say they are looking for 'environmental 
impacts,' and 'water theft.' But these new words ring hollow.

Because this is the same type of activity that traumatized me and the 
children of our community at an early age. ... The environmental 
impacts are very real and we need to address them. But this is the 
same war that they have been fighting for decades."

And then there was the water tank. During the raids, a grower who had 
been working to get into compliance with state regulations claimed 
that his 50,000 gallon water tank had been drained by law 
enforcement. The man was a client of hydrological engineer Brad Job, 
and Job, an employee of Pacific Watershed Associates, an 
environmental consulting firm, repeated his client's allegation on a 
local radio station.

The idea that law enforcement was going around draining water tanks 
in a drought quickly became a big part of the local narrative about 
the June raids.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman denied it, as did Humboldt 
Sheriff Downey. Downey cited the fire risk in the area as a reason 
for not draining the tanks.

But on other occasions, I've seen Mendocino County law enforcement 
break and destroy water infrastructure. And Sheriff Allman's repeated 
exhortations that the owner of the tank should come forward to file 
an official complaint rang hollow given that doing so would likely 
mean a trip to jail.

Near the end of the Grange Hall meeting in Laytonville, Will (he 
declined to give his last name), baby-faced and impassioned, stood 
up. "Three years ago our family purchased a large parcel. ... The 
previous tenants had done a lot of damage to the land," he said. 
"They had dumped trash in the ponds they had left jugs of used motor 
oil in the woods, done no maintenance of the forest. ... And thanks 
to the income of cannabis in the last three years our land is almost 
out of ecological debt."

People like Will, 23, who has a degree in agroecology, might 
represent the best hope for cannabis to keep being grown in this 
area. Farmers like him and O'Neill have a deep respect for the 
environment and are pushing for a transition to craft cannabis, with 
connoisseur branding.

And a key component of that brand will be an organic, environmentally 
sound, water board-compliant certification.

This summer, I visited Will's farm and admired his well-tended 
garden: 25 healthy plants, which, according to him, were only using 
one and a quarter gallons of water in the hot days of late June. Will 
runs the farm with his dad, Kevin, adhering to many best practices. 
For most of his life, Kevin was a yacht captain and a ship builder 
and he takes a philosophical view of the land. "A part of that is 
having been a guy who built boats," Kevin explained. "I always 
approach life as a voyage.

And the idea being this is the new ship, and when I'm done 
skippering, it'll be someone else's."

And so Will pours his education and youthful energy back into the 
soil. When he was showing me around, he rambled on about botany while 
excitedly checking the pH of his soil. The money produced by the farm 
has helped pay for the removal of old rusted cars, and he and his 
father have put in big rain catchment tanks with solar powered pumps 
and started to remove huge amounts of trash.

It's a beautiful and forward-thinking place, a model, but by no means the norm.

And even though Will and Kevin have their documents in order and are 
doing their best to clean and protect the land, when rumors spread on 
the morning that sheriffs were driving out to Island Mountain, it 
sent a chill through them. Even with all their effort and work, they 
still feared that a capricious law enforcement officer could take it all away.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom