what is the main reason some marijuana growers divert water?

What is the main reason some marijuana growers divert water?

The problem of illegal marijuana farms on national forests is, pardon the pun, growing. In spite of the fact that “pot” is now legal in California and other parts of the U.S. for medicinal and recreational use, illegal marijuana growing is still a billion dollar industry with international tentacles. In fact, the number of illegal grow sites increased dramatically following California’s Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana.

“Twenty years ago the people who planted and tended the illegal pot farms were poor farmers from Mexico,” said Craig Thompson, a research wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “Today international drug organizations bring in people from Russia and Asia and other places. They don’t’ have a farming background, it’s strictly mercenary.”

When Thompson was based at the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station in Fresno, Calif., he was hardly aware of an illegal marijuana growing problem on national forests and didn’t think it concerned him or the fisher population he was studying. The fisher is a small mammal related to the weasel that serves as an indicator species as the species thrives in healthy forests. When fishers began turning up dead under suspicious circumstances, Thompson sent a specimen to a nearby testing laboratory run by the University of California at Davis.

The cause of death—rodenticide—startled him. Such poison typically is used in urban or agricultural areas to kill rats and other rodents. How in the world did a fisher in the middle of a national forest get into rodenticide? His colleagues in Forest Service law enforcement informed him that illegal pot growers use large amounts of rodenticide to keep mice from destroying their plants. Mice and other species, such as ground squirrels, chew into the plants for their high moisture content, killing the plants in the process. Rodenticide protects the plants and kills the rodents, but it also kills other wildlife. Species such as the fisher can be poisoned by either eating the poisoned rodents, or by eating the rodenticides directly, which are often bacon or cheese flavored. Besides using rodenticide, the pot growers liberally spray their plants with highly concentrated insecticides such as carbofuran, a chemical that can seep through soil and enter ground water.

Impacts on wildlife

Thompson and his colleagues wanted to know the scope of the problem. Mourad Gabriel, who was then a doctoral student at the University of California at Davis, dug into the archives and tested 58 fisher carcasses that Thompson and others had sent in over the previous 4 years: 79 percent tested positive for rodenticide. “That was ‘the sky is falling’ statistic,’” Thompson said. In 2015 they tested 101 additional fishers carcasses from all over California, 85 percent tested positive. And in 2017 they tested an additional 22 carcasses, this time 100 percent tested positive. Clearly the problem was getting worse. “It’s hard to find any clean animals today,” he said.

Impacts on water

While the impacts of pot farms on wildlife are concerning, the negative impacts of illegal marijuana farms on natural water sources already are devastating.

A marijuana plant needs about 6 gallons of water per day to grow, which translates into 900 gallons per year per plant. In 2016-2017, law enforcement officers eradicated about 1,250,000 plants on California’s national forests. (The officers estimate that they find anywhere between 15-60 percent of the illegal grow sites.) “That is more than 1 billion gallons of water per year for just the plants found, so the true number of gallons is much higher, we just don’t know how high,” Thompson said. The numbers indicate the staggering amount of water the pot farms are diverting from the water balance equation in forest ecosystems—in a time of extended drought. And the real value may be twice that size, given the number pot farms that law enforcement doesn’t find.

Ironically, the growers plant more marijuana plants in times of drought because they expect to lose more plants under dry conditions, so the negative effects of these trespass sites on forest ecosystems are the worst when national forests are the weakest.

Pot growers build an infrastructure of long hoses and catchment ponds to siphon water away from streams and creeks into the makeshift ponds from which they irrigate their crops. Trees and other vegetation already stressed from drought become further susceptible to pests and diseases. Because wild animals will chew on the hoses for water or drink out of the catchment pools, the pot growers defend this infrastructure by scattering large quantities of rodenticide or mixing concentrated insecticides in tuna or cat food cans.)

“The water lines get gnawed on primarily by rodents, so they scatter rodenticide pellets along the pipe,” Thompson said. “But the water catchment pond and the actual camp are draws for all kinds of critters, so we find rodenticide pellets as well as open cans of tuna and cat food laced with insecticide. The tuna and cat food targets species like foxes, bears, and ravens.”

The killing effects can spread up the food chain, in a process called bioaccumulation, as larger predators feed on the smaller, poisoned animals. In one memorable case of bioaccumulation that Thompson observed, a fox died from consuming insecticide-laced bait. All the fleas, ticks, and flies on the fox died as well, and a vulture that fed on the dead fox also died. A recent study by California State researchers on owls further validates that toxic levels of rodenticides and insecticides are entering the terrestrial food web.

In California alone, these sites also skim more than a billion gallons of water away from sources intended for human consumption in places like San Francisco and Sacramento. These waters, including those that feed municipal water systems, are increasingly at risk of contamination from highly concentrated rodenticide and insecticide.

Pot farming in California also skims more than a billion gallons of water away from sources intended for human consumption in places like San Francisco and Sacramento. Even though Governor Jerry Brown officially declared the state’s historic five-year drought over last year, residents are now adhering to permanent water conservation rules, even in non-drought years. These waters, including those that feed municipal water systems, are increasingly at risk of contamination from highly concentrated rodenticide and he worries right now about the poison entering ground water and seeping into wells in rural areas.

Sounding the alarm

Thompson, who is now based in Missoula, Mont., working on the Forest Service’s Blackfoot Swan Landscape Restoration Project, said that given the scope and immediate dangers of illegal marijuana farming on national forests, he and his colleagues in the Forest Service and scientists in other federal, state, and nonprofit organizations are assisting law enforcement personnel with the detection, documentation, and prosecution of the perpetrators. They also are sounding the alarm in public forums about the immediate threats to the environment and human health.

Fellow scientists are also leveraging their areas of expertise to help law enforcement counter illegal marijuana grow sites on national forests:

Two tools developed by Forest Service scientists could help law enforcement officers detect the presence of illegal marijuana sites on national forests:

  • DIMEC, the Detection and Interdiction of Marijuana to Aid Enforcement and Conservation, is a computer algorithm capable of learning to detect patterns in aerial and satellite imagery consistent with illegal marijuana farms. Once the algorithm is fully trained, it can scan thousands of images in a matter of days to pinpoint a hundred acres of marijuana cultivation from millions of acres of forest land. “Right now law enforcement officers only have a vague estimate of how many trespass marijuana sites really exist,” said Forest Service postdoctoral researcher Adam Cummings. “DIMEC could give them a much more accurate picture of the true scope of the problem. It will also precisely pinpoint grow site locations so they can allocate their finite resources more effectively.” Cummings is working at the agency’s Pacific Southwest Research Station on a fellowship through the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education.
  • Environmental DNA, or eDNA, is a highly sensitive method of detecting low concentrations of organisms or substances in low abundance from a cup of water taken from a stream or other water source. The method has detected the presence of cannabis in streams. Forest Service scientist Michael Schwartz, who directs the agency’s National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation, believes the technology could be useful in detecting the presence of marijuana grow sites but no formal studies have been conducted.

A nationwide map of grow sites: Forest Service scientist Frank Koch and his colleagues at the agency’s Southern Research Station developed predictive models that reveal how drug markets, policies, and environmental conditions influence growers’ decisions for the location of grow sites. Their paper titled Predicting cannabis cultivation on national forests using a rational choice framework identifies marijuana street price and variables associated with grow site productivity, such as elevation and proximity to water, production costs, and risk of discovery as significant predictors. They are using their models to construct regional maps of grow site likelihood.

According to Forest Service Special-Agent-in-Charge Don Hoang, scientists can provide the Department of Justice with credible scientific evidence in support of prosecution for damage to government property and damage to timber value, both of which are federal violations. Documentation on types, quantities, and distribution of unauthorized pesticides, which violates California state laws and regulations is also of value in building a strong case. Scientific evidence provides documentation on unlawfully harvested wildlife in violation of state and federal regulations. The science also supports values claimed for overall reclamation and restoration of an illegal marijuana grow site.

Public Opinion:
The public generally is less concerned about illegal marijuana sites on national forests than they are about the negative effects of such sites on the environment and their potential threats to human safety, Thompson said. He and his colleagues are working to raise public awareness about the problem. It will take a shift in public opinion to solve the problem because it’s too big for one agency to conquer. The tremendous amount of water used to irrigate illegal grow sites, especially in a time of drought, is a message he wants the public to hear. When people understand that the illegal activity may cause water rationing, or that natural treasures like Giant Sequoias may be put at risk, it puts the problem of illegal grow sites in perspective.

What is the main reason some marijuana growers divert water? The problem of illegal marijuana farms on national forests is, pardon the pun, growing. In spite of the fact that “pot” is now legal

Marijuana cultivation in California is sucking streams dry, says new report

The drought-stricken state is facing further water shortages due to unregulated marijuana farms. Researchers say that needs to change — and fast

Mike Corral cuts branches from a marijuana plant as he prepares a harvest in Davenport, California. Marijuana farming can be challenging to regulate, due to its tenuous legal status. Photograph: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Mike Corral cuts branches from a marijuana plant as he prepares a harvest in Davenport, California. Marijuana farming can be challenging to regulate, due to its tenuous legal status. Photograph: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Last modified on Wed 14 Feb 2018 16.43 GMT

With its dense forests, foggy climate and rugged coastline, California’s Humboldt County has long been synonymous with its biggest cash crop: marijuana. Cannabis has thrived here — both before and since the state legalized it for medical purposes in 1996. The industry has been booming in the last few years, and with little regulation it has had a huge impact on the environment.

A report, published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife earlier this month, quantifies some of that impact for the first time.

Researchers looked at marijuana plants grown outdoors, including those in greenhouses, on private land. They found that marijuana farming is overtaxing creeks during the growing season, which runs from May to September, a period of little rainfall in the state, the report notes. The water usage is so intense, in fact, that water diverted for marijuana cultivation likely exceeds stream flow in certain areas.

Additional research from state wildlife biologists that isn’t included in the report shows marijuana cultivation was partly to blame for several creeks that dried up last year.

A growing problem

The water-intensive crop requires an estimated 22.7 liters (6 gallons) per plant per day. Wine grapes, on the other hand, which also are widely grown in northern California, usually use just about 12.64 liters (3.3 gallons) per plant per day, according to the report.

The murky legal status of marijuana — it’s illegal for recreational use under California law and a federal offense to use it in any way — has made regulating cultivation difficult. Requiring growers to apply for permits or inspecting their farming operations would create a public record of their operations and expose them to potential federal prosecution. But state biologists began to notice a significant impact of marijuana cultivation on wildlife starting around 2009.

Persistent drought has put pressure on the state to more closely manage water resources. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, a source of water for drinking and farming, stands at 9% of normal levels.

But the expansion of marijuana farming in the state is the primary reason that water and wildlife managers are taking a closer look at its effects on water quantity and quality, says Cris Carrigan, director of the office of enforcement at the State Water Resources Control Board. Using Google Earth data, Fish and Wildlife biologists saw the amount of land used to grow marijuana approximately double from 2009 to 2012.

Through public education and enforcement, new efforts are underway to compel growers to secure permits for water diversion and discharge. But will marijuana farmers comply? Carrigan suspects the response won’t be overwhelming, at least initially.

“We started to regulate dairies 10 years ago, and some people are still in denial that we can regulate them,” Carrigan says. “I suspect marijuana growers will be like the dairy farmers, who are uber-libertarian and aren’t going to get permits unless they have to.”

Firm numbers on the size of even the state-legal marijuana market are hard to come by, partly because those in the business — from growers to retailers — don’t necessarily want to provide data, since marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

A California market research firm, the ArcView Group, estimates that the legal market grew 74%, from $1.5bn in 2013 to $2.7bn in 2014, nationwide. Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states as well as Washington DC. Four states — Alaska, Oregon, Colorado, Washington — now allow its recreational use.

California’s environmental regulators expect to see more land cleared for marijuana planting to serve the growing demand. They are already alarmed by the impact of existing farms.

Disappearing rivers

In the Fish and Wildlife report, researchers compared estimated water demand with stream flow data. The results indicate that growers are at times are diverting more than what three of the four creeks studied could support.

The creeks need a certain amount of water to keep coho and chinook salmon and steelhead trout alive, three species listed as threatened by the federal government.

Coho salmon spend their childhood in the creeks for a year before making their way to the ocean, where they will stay for two years before coming back to spawn, explains Scott Bauer, senior environmental scientist with the Fish and Wildlife and a lead author of the report.

“It’s harder for us to recover those species if we lose them every year. The impact cascades through the food web,” Bauer says. “There are other critters that rely on the returning adults for food. The commercial fisheries would be affected. The repercussion to both the environment and humans is significant.”

Bauer says additional research conducted last year in northern California — the results of which aren’t included in the report — show that four of five streams in the research area that reach marijuana farms went dry last summer. The only stream that didn’t wasn’t a source of water for the crop.

Anxiety on the ground

One of the desiccated streams was Sproul Creek in the Eel River watershed, dry for the first time in many years. The state’s water and wildlife regulators say marijuana cultivation and drought were likely to blame. In January, they inspected 14 properties along Sproul Creek in Humboldt County as part of a new effort to require growers to apply for permits to divert water and discharge waste.

Getting a water diversion permit from the Fish and Wildlife isn’t a new requirement, but it has been rarely enforced. To boost enforcement, the agency can now issue penalties administratively instead of going to court. Fines range from $8,000 per stream per site for diverting too much water to $20,000 for polluting streams with fertilizer runoff.

The California Water Resources Control Board began to look at how it could regulate marijuana growers last year and is currently developing a permit for wastewater discharge that growers in 10 northern California counties will need to get. Its North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board plans to release a draft of the permitting language over the next month for public comment, and the goal is to launch the permitting process by this summer, Carrigan says.

The water board can issue orders requiring property owners to reduce diversion. But those orders can be hard to enforce since California’s water rights law doesn’t specify how much or at what rate those who live along a stream can draw. Those property owners can draw as much as they deem reasonable for domestic use, and they don’t have to meter how much they take.

Bauer estimates that only 1% of the farms in Humboldt County, one of the three big marijuana production counties in what is known as the Emerald Triangle, has the necessary permits from the Fish and Wildlife for water diversion.

It’s natural for many in the marijuana businesses to be wary of the state effort to regulate them more closely, says Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, which is based in Humboldt County and represents growers, dispensaries and others in the business statewide.

But growers need to support regulations that reduce environmental impact and become more involved in public policy, he says. Being more politically active also makes it more likely for growers to get help in these drought years.

“The bottom line is unregulated agriculture has environmental impact. Our challenge is in how to regulate it,” Allen says. “It takes time. We are not going to be in perfect compliance tomorrow.”

The drought-stricken state is facing further water shortages due to unregulated marijuana farms. Researchers say that needs to change – and fast