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SACRAMENTO — A Mendocino County lawman and a former marijuana grower defended small-scale cannabis cultivation Wednesday at a legislative hearing on the impact of the drought and marijuana on North Coast fisheries.

But state water and wildlife officials underscored, at times in very personal ways, the hit that nature — including the region’s prized salmon fishery — is taking from an unprecedented drought and a largely unregulated marijuana industry with an estimated value of up to $32 billion a year.

Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said salmon are under assault throughout Northern California, noting that 90 percent of the returning coho salmon population was lost last year in the Russian River watershed, while warm water from Lake Shasta is harming Sacramento River salmon.

Explosive growth of marijuana cultivation over the past two decades is “literally sucking rivers dry,” said Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who convened the hearing as chairman of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture.

The resulting crisis for state fisheries is “likely the most severe in history,” McGuire said.

McGuire and Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, the panel’s vice chairman, both have introduced legislation that would regulate California’s medical marijuana industry, set in motion by voters’ approval of medical cannabis in 1996.

McGuire said he hoped the Legislature “will have the backbone” to approve regulation, even if some members have reservations over medical marijuana. “It’s legal,” he said. “We’re not turning the clock back.”

Bonham said his agency received 24,000 calls last year relating to alleged illegal water use on the North Coast.

Thomas Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, said his agents had inspected 87 marijuana-growing operations among the “tens of thousands of them” estimated to exist.

Department of Fish and Wildlife Lt. DeWayne Little said illegal pot gardens are “larger than ever” and are polluting waterways with sediment, pesticides and fertilizer, while growers also are building ponds and diverting water from streams through miles of pipes.

Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, an advocacy group for medical marijuana farmers and patients, said his group estimates there are 50,000 cannabis farms statewide producing 10 million to 20 million pounds of pot a year with a retail value of $16 billion to $32 billion.

A former cannabis grower, Allen said his group, representing about 750 mostly small-scale growers in 32 counties, would welcome state regulation, treating marijuana like agriculture instead of a criminal activity.

In terms of water use, Allen said pot cultivation uses about 7,500 acre-feet of water per year, while California agriculture uses about 35 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is enough to support two homes of four people a year.

“Keep us in the game to pay the fees and the taxes,” he said.

Allen condemned marijuana raids, like the four-day operation last week that seized more than 86,500 plants in the Island Mountain area where Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties meet.

Calling the raid “a continuation of the war on drugs,” Allen said that approach won’t work.

Allen said his friends and family members have been jailed and killed during the yearslong law enforcement campaign against marijuana.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, who participated in the operation, said the seized plants consumed about 5,000 gallons of water a day. Pointing to a large color photo of a water bladder found at a growing site, Allman said it contained about 587,000 gallons of water drawn from the Eel River.

But Allman also drew a distinction that seemed to ally him, to a degree, with Allen. Allman said he grew up in Garberville in Humboldt County and watched as people moved to the area to farm pot in “responsible, reasonable” operations in the 1970s. “The old hippies are not the problem,” said Allman, a 35-year law enforcement veteran.

But the environmental damage he saw in the Island Mountain area “will stay in my mind forever,” he said, blaming it on “rich white people” who are making “millions of dollars because they haven’t been caught.”

Small-scale medical marijuana growers are not culpable, he said. “I’m going to stick up for them, as much as it pains me to do it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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