Pubdate: Sun, 30 Aug 2015
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2015 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Peter Hecht


Willow Creek - The California Department of Fish and Wildlife 
helicopter circled over steep timberland in Humboldt County's coastal 
mountains, prowling for potential water diversions and environmental 
damage caused by what is arguably the state's most lucrative 
agricultural product: marijuana.

The problems weren't hard to find.

The pot farms below sprawled out with factory-like orderliness. From 
the air, the rows of budding plants resembled citrus orchards. 
Leveled terraces supported plastic-lined greenhouses capable of 
producing multiple marijuana yields. Giant water tanks stood nearby.

Lt. DeWayne Little, a veteran game warden with a muscular build and a 
shaved head, snapped photos of the clearings. The view unsettled him.

"Marijuana uses about the same amount of water that corn uses," he 
said. "But you wouldn't grow corn up here. This area is not made for 
agriculture. But people are just carving out chunks of the mountain 
and casting that aside" for marijuana.

Little and other Fish and Wildlife officers had recently joined local 
narcotics teams in raiding pot farms said to be draining a half 
million gallons of water a day from the Eel River. But the 
information he gathered on the helicopter wasn't intended for a 
police incursion.

Little is a supervisor in a unique state effort that identifies 
growers willing to work with authorities to monitor water use and 
environmental impacts from marijuana cultivation. The compliance 
program signals a shift in regulatory oversight of an industry that 
has existed in a murky legal area since California became the first 
state to legalize marijuana for medical use in 1996.

Amid the state's prolonged drought, Gov. Jerry Brown last year 
approved $3 million in funding to dispatch oversight officers and 
environmental scientists to identify and inspect water-thirsty pot 
gardens in sensitive natural settings. Officials from the State Water 
Resources Control Board and Department of Fish and Wildlife so far 
have visited 150 sites with growers' approval. They have issued 
instructions on water conservation and filed 50 notices of 
environmental violations.

The compliance program kicked off with 11 full-time officers from the 
state water board and seven from Fish and Wildlife. The specialized 
team primarily has focused on small and medium-scale marijuana 
growers in the upper Central Valley and North Coast. Under pending 
legislation, the program stands to be expanded statewide.

The program is not intended for outlaw growers surreptitiously using 
public lands, but instead targets farmers on private properties who 
cultivate a crop that's arguably legal if unregulated. They work in a 
gray corner of agriculture where rules have yet to be fully 
established. Without strict oversight, many growers have become 
environmental renegades, wasting or diverting precious water and 
disposing of potentially harmful fertilizers and chemicals in damaging ways.

As Little's helicopter flew over the emerald-green mountains, several 
armed Fish and Wildlife officers on the ground accompanied 
clipboard-toting Water Resource officers on visits to pot growers in 
Humboldt County's Willow Creek area. Authorities worry that grading 
for pot farming and water diversions threaten the tributary to the 
Trinity River and salmon populations downstream.

At their first inspection of 20 cannabis farms during a two-day 
operation in late July, they met brothers Steve and Howard Harvey. 
Steve, 74, is a retired attorney, and Howard, 71, a former 
construction engineering contractor. They have adjoining properties 
where they have grown pot for more than 40 years.

"Everybody up here when we bought this place just grew a lot of pot. 
It wasn't an industry," said Steve. He described seeing "not dozens, 
but literally hundreds" of water tanks hauled up into the forest in 
recent years to store siphoned water.

"We're in a bad-news drought, and all these growers, they're all new 
and they're all about money, money, money, greed, greed, greed," he said.

The brothers allowed the team of environmental scientists, led by 
Connor McIntee of the water board and Tobi Freeny of Fish and 
Wildlife, to inspect Howard's 50-plant marijuana garden. The fenced 
ridge-top plot was modest compared to the vast cultivations common in 
the area, but appeared to exceed county marijuana guidelines, which 
allow up to 200 square feet of growing space on larger properties.

Howard told the officers he uses cannabis medicinally for skin 
cancer. He said he offered no product for sale. Officials said they 
just wanted to know about his fertilizer use, irrigation and drainage.

"Where does the water come in?" Freeny asked him.

"It comes from that tank," he said, gesturing to a neighbor's water 
storage unit.

"Does that water come from a spring?"

"Yes," he answered, adding: "There's one thing about the Harvey 
brothers  they tell the truth."

"That's good," Freeny responded.

No citation was issued.

New regulatory approach

California's four-year drought has prompted authorities to broaden 
their approach to regulating cannabis cultivation with the aim of 
protecting sensitive watersheds. In addition to the environmental 
compliance program, the state has begun issuing marijuana water 
permits and ramped up efforts to target environmental offenders 
through civil lawsuits.

The compliance efforts are an ambitious experiment in a state that's 
home to America's largest cannabis economy, with an estimated 50,000 
marijuana gardens spanning Central Valley foothills, the Sierra 
Nevada and the North Coast. In Humboldt County, where the value of 
marijuana production is estimated at $1 billion, authorities say 
there are more than 4,000 outdoor cannabis gardens, on top of an 
untold number of indoor sites.

The program is applauded by cannabis advocates who support oversight 
and permitting of growers under the state's existing medical 
marijuana laws and, potentially, expanded legalization for 
recreational pot use under a 2016 ballot initiative.

But many are angered that the state's compliance effort hasn't 
stopped police raids on pot farms. Fish and Wildlife wardens still 
regularly assist local law enforcement in raids on alleged commercial 
marijuana growers accused of fouling the environment.

According to a recent Washington Post analysis, an outdoor marijuana 
grow requires a similar amount of water per acre of crop as the 
famously scapegoated almond. But the California chapter of the 
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said its own 
study showed that, in terms of overall acreage, cannabis accounts for 
a minuscule share of California's agricultural water consumption.

What acreage there is, environmentalists say, increasingly poses a 
threat to nature and water resources.

Two summers ago, Sproul Creek, a salmon-spawning ground that feeds 
into the Eel River watershed in a prime cannabis growing region in 
southern Humboldt County, went dry for the first time in memory. It 
dried up again last year, and again this July.

Scott Greacen, North Coast director of the environmental group 
Friends of the Eel River, said it's wrong to blame pot growers alone 
for draining watershed already "dramatically desecrated by 20th 
century commercial logging." But, he said, marijuana presents an 
additional challenge.

"The coho salmon (populations) have been pushed to the brink by 
logging," Greacen said. "But they're being pushed over the brink by weed."

Earlier this month, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control 
Board approved plans to create the state's first-ever pot 
"water-resource protection" and permitting program. It would issue 
local permits for a fee to marijuana growers who agree to follow 
strict water-use rules.

That future was on display as McIntee, a state scientist based in 
Santa Rosa, inspected the Harvey brothers' neighbor in Willow Creek. 
The neighbor, who supplies water for Howard Harvey's garden, had an 
operation with more than 200 plants.

McIntee led a three-member team that inspected springs feeding the 
growers' four water tanks, which collectively hold nearly 20,000 
gallons. They checked roads on the property and took notes on plant 
nutrients and potential seepage from the greenhouses and gardens.

"You get enough water from the springs in the winter time  so don't 
touch the water in the summer," McIntee told the grower.

McIntee said a farm of that size would require a water-discharge 
permit - a $1,000 annual fee, under the lowest of three proposed 
tiers. Officials say the fee structure, still to be finalized, will 
be based on the scale of the growing operations and their proximity 
to rivers and streams. McIntee told the grower to look for details in 
an upcoming email.

Asking for oversight

Casey O'Neill is among those who welcome the compliance program. His 
HappyDay Farms near Laytonville in Mendocino County grows marijuana 
along with organic tomatoes, squash and melons.

O'Neill, 32, sells buds from his 25 plants (the limit per property in 
Mendocino County) to cannabis dispensaries and medical user groups. 
He said he's conscious of his environmental footprint. Straw beds 
beneath his gardens  located above the Foster Creek drainage system 
for the Eel River  capture fertilizer nutrients and prevent erosion. 
Meanwhile, O'Neill says he invited Fish and Wildlife officers to 
inspect a catch basin he's built as an alternative to tapping into 
local streams.

Constructed without a permit, his man-made pond collects winter rain 
from coastal mountains and can hold up to 2 million gallons of water. 
He uses solar energy to pump water to storage tanks, which feed his gardens.

In 2008, O'Neill was put on three-year's probation for felony 
cultivation elsewhere in Mendocino County. He said he wants no more 
contact with law enforcement. But he welcomes regulatory oversight by 
the state.

"I want to build a collaborative dialogue," O'Neill said. "I see a 
lot of good things happening in the cannabis industry, but as 
'criminals' we don't have the ability to talk about our best practices."

While officials issued no citations over O'Neill's catch pond, the 
state's Central Valley Water Board recently initiated civil actions 
against marijuana cultivators accused of severely damaging water 
quality and habitat in Shasta County.

The board imposed a $297,400 civil fine for violations of state water 
quality laws against Christopher Cordes, a Florida man, and local 
contractor Eddie Axner, for dumping tons of sediment into Cottonwood 
Creek, the largest undammed tributary to the Sacramento River.

In a pending case, water board staff recently recommended a $201,400 
fine against another out-of-state cultivator, Brent Vanderkam of 
Virginia, who is accused of rerouting tributaries to Shasta's Clover 
Creek for an expansive pot farm.

Meanwhile, police raids continue. In June, Fish and Wildlife agents 
joined sheriff's narcotics enforcement teams from Humboldt, Mendocino 
and Trinity counties in raiding pot farms near Island Mountain on the 
North Coast. The teams eradicated 86,000 marijuana plants, saying the 
farms were causing environmental harm.

Authorities described the farms as commercial operations with 
thousands of plants that were draining an estimated 500,000 gallons 
of water a day from tributaries to the Eel River.

Fish and Wildlife officials reported nearly 100 environmental 
violations from growers tapping springs, damming creeks or dumping 
soil. At one farm, authorities came across a massive rubber bladder 
bulging with 575,000 gallons of water and measuring one-third of a 
football field.

"We have never seen this," said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman. 
"We don't know how they got it there. But that water either came from 
springs feeding into the Eel River or the Eel River itself. Either 
way, the river lost."

State officials say they have no choice but to pursue both avenues. 
The compliance program brings in farmers willing to cooperate with 
authorities, and the raids hold accountable scofflaws operating with 
blatant disregard of guidelines.

At an early-morning briefing before inspections at Willow Creek, 
Little said officials would counsel cannabis farmers on water use and 
erosion prevention; but they made no promises that offenders wouldn't 
face criminal or civil actions.

"We don't want there to be any misunderstanding that this is an 
effort to regulate the discharge from marijuana cultivation  and 
they're not going to get a get-out-of-jail card," he said.

In a separate operation that same day, Fish and Wildlife joined 
Humboldt County sheriff's deputies in an unannounced raid on a farm 
deemed too large for compliance inspection. Narcotics officers cut 
down 1,426 marijuana plants. Game wardens documented 30 alleged 
environmental violations, including draining excessive water from a 
mountain stream that, left undisturbed, provides cold water flows to 
sustain coho salmon in Willow Creek.

Little said the property owner, who lives in the Bay Area, wasn't 
there. Authorities encountered a woman from New Zealand who said she 
took a summer job at the farm to earn $50,000 to buy a sailboat.

It was a different scene at the nearby farm of Duane McCall, 62, a 
retired property maintenance manager. A cannabis grower most of his 
life, McCall didn't think authorities would give him trouble over his 
35 plants.

"I'm a little anxious but not scared," he said. "They've got much 
bigger fish to go after."

McCall told inspectors he used drip irrigation to grow his plants and 
fertilized with sea bird guano. McIntee, the water board scientist, 
told McCall he would send him an email regarding minor environmental 
improvements. A Fish and Game warden, who checked out McCall's 
storage tanks, told him: "We're good on water use."

McCall seemed flushed with affirmation.

"Cool," he told the warden. "I'm from the '60s, man. I care."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom