Streams in Northern California's prime marijuana-growing watersheds likely will be sucked dry this year if pot cultivation isn't curtailed, experts say.
"Essentially, marijuana can consume all the water. Every bit of it," said state Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Scientist Scott Bauer, who specializes in salmon recovery and is working on a study of the issue.
The findings, expected to be released soon, shed new light on a massive, largely unregulated industry in California that has been blamed for polluting streams and forests with pesticides and trash and for bulldozing trees and earth to make clearings for gardens.
Illegal Marijuana Gardens
A sharp increase in water-intensive pot cultivation, exacerbated by drought conditions, adds to the habitat degradation and threatens to undo decades of costly fish restoration efforts, Bauer said.
"The destruction of habitat is actually quite staggering," said Patrick Foy, a spokesman with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Last year, 24 North Coast salmon-bearing tributaries were reported to have gone dry, Bauer said, though not all were verified by the agency.
Even without drought, there isn't going to be enough water to meet the pot industry's growing demand, Bauer said.
Just the illegal marijuana plants confiscated in California by law enforcement in recent years — between 2 million and 4 million annually — use upward of 1.8 billion gallons — or about 600,000 water tanker trucks over their five-month growing season, based on the average water usage documented in the study.
That amount is enough to stanch the seasonal flow of many small creeks in the region, potentially stranding the young salmon and steelhead that decades of taxpayer-funded efforts have sought to restore.
"It's really an important issue for fish," Bauer said. "We've invested a lot of money in these salmon and steelhead stock."