As the state moves toward taxing marijuana growers for the first time, those same growers also are starting to face restrictions on water use, just like farmers of more conventional crops.
One reason is that the water consumption of pot farms has caused serious depredations of salmon and trout runs in several Northern California streams, most notably the Eel River and its tributary streams in the so-called “Emerald Triangle” of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties. Marijuana has long been the largest cash crop in that region.
It’s not that a single cannabis plant is much more thirsty than other crops. One plant, according to many reports, can take anywhere from six to 15 gallons per day, about as much as a corn plant and not nearly as much as it takes to produce, say, a single one-pound beefsteak or the denim needed to make a pair of jeans.
But when the estimated 30,000 pot growers in the area – most claiming to grow only medicinal marijuana – are done watering on any typical day, they have often used more than 720,000 gallons of water.
One question might be, “And for what?” The detrimental mental and motivational effects of regular pot smoking are at least as well-known and well-researched as the medical and palliative benefits on the positive side of the weed.
But while virtually all other water users in California have suffered drought-related cutbacks over the last year, the often-clandestine nature of pot farming has left it without similar restrictions.
This may be about to end. For the first time, a system of regulating medical marijuana growers statewide was signed into law this fall. That came after Republican George Runner, an ultraconservative former state senator now serving on the state’s tax-administration Board of Equalization, opined that California should levy an excise tax on medipot, and use the money to fight marijuana-related crimes, like poaching on public lands and draining streams dry.
Some streams have dried up in part because of drought, but also because many growers pump water regularly to large storage tanks which have lately dotted the landscape in some rural areas. They supply water for terraced planting that has produced erosion into streams, creating other problems.
One reason there are no controls: The Emerald Triangle features thousands of acres owned by timber companies and other large property holders who rarely, if ever, patrol their holdings. So pot growers brazenly squat on the land, often setting booby-traps in their immediate vicinity and bringing in crews of undocumented laborers from Central America. Nicaragua is reportedly a major source of such labor.
One result is that fish runs essential to survival of coho salmon and steelhead trout can end as young fish are left high and dry, literally fish out of water.
Plus, growers often use pesticides and rat poisons with little regard for whether they drain back into stream beds and future water supplies, or for whether poisoned animals and insects enter the food chain after being eaten by birds.
Enter the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, whose jurisdiction runs north from Marin County to the Oregon state line. Calling it a “first step” toward protecting water resources, that board voted 5-1 in late summer to compel growers to register their operations and operate with environmental responsibility. That could mean restrictions on water use, as well as protecting streams and wildlife from contamination.
The new regulations, billed as a pilot program that will spread to the rest of the state if successful, don’t aim to arrest growers and in fact provide ways for them to screen their identities from officers out to enforce federal laws still outlawing all pot production.
“We are not endorsing marijuana cultivation” one board member said. But the board is officially recognizing widespread growing which often disregards county-set limits on the number of medipot plants one person may raise.
In this battle of fish vs. pot, it’s clear the weed is winning for now, but at least the plight of the salmon and trout has been officially recognized for the first time.
What happens if a ballot initiative fully legalizes recreational marijuana next year? That’s anyone guess.