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Morain: California's environment going to pot

  • In this undated photo released by Butte County Department of Public Works, marijuana grading violations are seen off of Crystal Ranch Road in the Feather Falls area in Butte County, Calif. With parts of Northern California’s scenic hillsides illegally gouged by bulldozers for marijuana grows, frustrated local officials asked the state for help to protect tributaries of the Sacramento River from runoff of sediment and the chemicals used on plants. The Butte County supervisors hoped to charge growers with tougher penalties under federal and state clean water regulations than the grading infractions local officials could impose if the gardens were legal under state medical marijuana laws. (AP Photo/Butte County Department of Public Works)

In a state that prides itself on its environmentalist sensibilities, emboldened marijuana growers have ripped out ponderosa pines and bulldozed deep terraces into steep slopes above Lake Oroville, all so their crops can receive full sun.

In an earlier era, 49ers with visions of riches used powerful water cannons to tear apart mountains in search of precious metal. The story hasn't changed much in a century and a half, except now the gold is green.

Growers don't obtain permits and take no steps to limit erosion. Although they probably are breaking laws governing discharges, California Regional Water Quality Control Board officials shy away from inspecting the farms, fearing for their safety.

Because many growers display notes from doctors swearing that they're cultivating the marijuana for medicinal purposes, Butte County law enforcement officials don't have power to make arrests.

"Where's the Sierra Club when you need it?" asked Assemblyman Dan Logue, a Republican whose district includes Lake Oroville. To which Kathryn Phillips of the Sierra Club answered that the state should assert its role.

Not someone to be mistaken for John Muir, Logue led the effort a few years back to roll back AB 32, the measure to limit greenhouse gas. Cagey politician that he is, Logue also knows an issue when he sees it.

"There are chemicals and fertilizers being used," he said. "It is like strip mining of 150 years ago. If it isn't mitigated now, there will be no end to it." On a hot afternoon last week, Logue and Butte County Sheriff Jerry Smith brought me to two of the many pot farms in the mountains east of Oroville to illustrate the latest bad impact of California's failed marijuana regulation.

Scores of marijuana plants grew in fabric containers filled with rich top soil on newly carved terraces. Wells had been dug and water pumped to large tanks, where it was mixed with nitrate fertilizer and piped to the plants.

Farmers, nowhere to be seen, left behind doctors' certificates saying the marijuana was being grown for medicinal purposes, as authorized by Proposition 215, the 1996 initiative that legalized medical marijuana.

On one farm, the 215 authorization identified the "patient" as Gilbert Benitez Jr. Butte County property records show Benitez has a Florida address; he didn't return my call.

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