Following years of warnings from state Fish and Wildlife and forestry officials, the federal government this week called for further study of the effects of marijuana cultivation on threatened salmon populations in pot-rich areas like Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, which includes Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties.
The recommendations by federal fisheries officials were included in a document released Tuesday that lays out plans to rehabilitate 40 populations of threatened coho salmon in a wide geographic range that includes about 10,000 miles of streams and 13 million acres in southern Oregon and Northern California, including parts of Mendocino and Lake counties.
“We identified marijuana as one of the activities that contributes to the problems” fish face in some regions, said Julie Weeder, the recovery coordinator for the Northern California division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division, commonly called the National Marine Fisheries Service, which published the report.
The comprehensive, estimated 2,200-page report proposes some 3,000 recovery actions. There are about a half-dozen “highest priority recovery actions” for each of the 40 coho populations addressed in the plan. The top of the action list for rehabilitating fish populations in the Eel River system in Lake, Mendocino and Humboldt counties includes studying the effects of the marijuana industry on the fish and taking unspecified action to minimize its effects if necessary. There are no specific mitigation plans listed for pot because its effects need further study, Weeder said.
Some marijuana mitigations are already included in other recommended actions, such as stopping unauthorized water diversions from streams and rivers, Weeder said. Many illegal pot growers buy, rent or trespass and illegally divert water from streams that feed the threatened watersheds.
The priority lists also include well-established rehabilitation actions, such as restoring natural stream channels, reducing sediment buildup and increasing stream flows by reducing water diversions generally.
The plan — purely voluntary — is aimed at providing guidance to federal, state, local and tribal resource managers and private organizations and people who are pursuing rehabilitation projects or planning to do so.
“It provides the road map to recovery,” Weeder said. The report describes historic and current conditions in the designated coho population areas, the threats facing the fish and how best to proceed toward increasing their numbers. It would cost an estimated $5 billion to implement the entire plan, she said.
There currently is no funding pool identified for the project. It’s likely the individual entities involved with coho restoration projects will pursue funding and that it will take decades to implement the plan.
The plan has been in the works since coho in southern Oregon and northern California were declared threatened in 1997. Several drafts were circulated before the final report was released Tuesday.
Marijuana cultivation was added to the list of fish dangers in about 2011, following recommendations by state Fish and Wildlife and forestry officials.
A state Fish and Wildlife study on four watersheds in Mendocino and Humboldt counties that was released earlier this year estimated that escalating marijuana production in Humboldt and Mendocino counties had the potential to suck streams dry, threatening decades of salmon restoration efforts.
The study used satellite images to determine that an average of 30,000 plants were growing in each of the four watersheds in 2012, an increase since 2009 of 75 percent, according to state Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Scientist Scott Bauer, who headed the study.
Researchers estimated each plant consumes 6 gallons of water a day, a rate that adds up to 180,000 gallons of water per day in each watershed — more than 160 Olympic-sized swimming pools — over the average 150-day growing cycle for outdoor plants.
Some marijuana advocates say that the plants use much less, closer to three gallons a day. But others have said that mature, tree-sized plants can use more, closer to 15 gallons a day.
Water isn’t the only problem associated with marijuana cultivation.
Pot production also is polluting streams with pesticides, herbicides and sediment, a byproduct of clearing trees and building illegal roads to grow marijuana, wildlife, forestry and law enforcement officials say. It also is poisoning other wildlife.
State Fish and Wildlife spokesman Patrick Foy has called the habitat destruction from pot production “staggering.”
Marijuana advocates say most people who grow pot for medicinal use are conscientious and are not causing environmental problems. It’s the people who have moved to the area to grow large amounts for profit who are the problem, they contend.
Marijuana growing is just one factor among many purported to have affected Coho and other fish populations, according to the recovery plan. Some date back more than 100 years, such as the damming of the upper main stem of the Eel River above Potter Valley in 1908. Cape Horn dam and Scott Dam, which created Lake Pillsbury in 1922, blocked access to as much as 50 miles of spawning grounds and altered river flows, according to the report.
Similarly, the middle main stem of the Eel River was affected by the draining and diking of the Little Lake Valley outside of Willits in 1910 for grazing cattle and growing potatoes. The seasonal lake likely was productive habitat for Coho, according to the report.
The entire report may be found at: www.westcoast. fisheries.noaa.gov/ stories/2014/29_09302014_soncc_plan_released.html
You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MendoReporter.