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California to impose environmental rules on North Coast marijuana growers

North Coast water quality officials are poised to adopt first-of-their-kind regulations governing waste disposal, erosion, chemical use, riparian management and other water-related impacts of widespread cannabis cultivation.

The new rules, set for a vote Thursday by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board at a meeting in Santa Rosa, result from growing concern about environmental damage related to the booming marijuana industry, particularly fragile stream systems and wildlife habitats already degraded by drought.

But it also represents a grand experiment in bringing pot growers out of the dark and into the open, obliging them to operate under a regulatory framework that requires they report their activities and submit to site inspections.

“It’s a milestone,” said Matt St. John, the board’s executive officer. “It’s one of the top priorities for me as the executive officer and for my board members.”

Even Colorado and Washington, which have legalized the recreational use of marijuana and adopted rules for cultivation and consumption, do not have environmental regulations in place, he said.

The new rules include provisions designed to safeguard privacy and make the process more palatable to those who might have an ingrained distrust of public authority, including an allowance for many farmers to register through approved nongovernmental third-party organizations. Board staff have fielded inquiries from individuals and organizations interested in participating as third parties in the program.

As a hedge against self-incrimination, the rules also are written to apply to “cannabis cultivation and associated activities or operations with similar environmental effects,” so that those enrolling are not necessarily admitting they grow pot, which still is illegal under federal law. Additionally, participants are not required to demonstrate whether they are growing marijuana for medicinal use, which state law permits, or recreational use, which many expect will be legalized next year.

Water quality officials say their interests lie outside the legalization debate and are focused on what they can do to protect the region’s waterways - including those that provide habitat to endangered salmonid species - from ill effects related to clearing of trees and riparian plant life, sediment deposits, chemical contamination, waste discharges and other byproducts of negligent cultivation.

The thrust of the 30-page order is to establish environmental standards and best practices under which growers must operate. It addresses irrigation runoff, stream crossings, handling of refuse and human waste, pesticides and soil amendments, while enabling the state to monitor and enforce protection of water resources.

The rules exempt those with cumulative growing operations under 2,000 square feet where “there is no potential for discharge of waste,” though they could be required to register in the future if there are complaints or some other indication, such as proximity to surface water, that triggered a need. For the remaining operations, it establishes a three-tiered structure:

- Tier 1 is for growers with gardens up to 5,000 square feet in size that pose a “low threat” of water quality impacts because of their distance from surface water, operational scale and relatively shallow slope.

- Tier 2 is considered a “management tier” for those that pose a higher threat of degradation to water resources. Growers in this tier must develop and implement a water resource protection plan and are subject to as-yet-undetermined annual fees and reporting requirements. Those enrolled in Tiers 1 or 2 may register through approved third-party organizations and thus avoid providing documentation directly to the state board.

- Tier 3 is a remedial tier for sites already in need of cleanup or restoration. These growers are required to fulfill additional requirements, including having approved work plans designed to bring their properties within accepted standards.

Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, has advocated for months on behalf of the new order, a pilot program that regulators and enforcement officials with the state Fish and Wildlife Department hope to use as a model throughout California. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, which governs Northern California counties farther inland, is circulating a draft proposal now and is expected to consider adoption in October.

Allen said compelling growers to comply with environmentally sound farming practices has the potential to weed out “environmental criminals” who, until now, have had an unfair advantage over growers who cultivate their crops with high regard for the natural world.

“Right now, there is nothing differentiating a small, sustainable family farm … from someone who is trashing the environment,” Allen said. “In the marketplace, there really isn’t anything distinguishing those two. At the end of the day, it’s products in a bag and they end up on shelves.”

With regulation in place, informed customers can begin to ensure that they support environmentally respectful growers.

The rules require growers in the state’s North Coast Region to enroll in the program by Feb. 15. The region runs from Marin County to the Oregon border and takes in the nation’s richest cannabis country, including Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties - the so-called Emerald Triangle.

During weeks in which the draft proposal circulated for public comment, a variety of concerns and objections were raised, including doubts about the degree to which growers would willingly participate; challenges to the tier definitions; and complaints that the North Coast’s huge wine grape industry was not similarly subjected to such rules. In response, the board made several adjustments to the rules, including a more liberal definition for Tier 1 that raised the operational ceiling from 2,000 to 5,000 square feet. The board also said it is working on a waste discharge management plan for vineyards.

Allen, of the Emerald Growers Association, said he has been doing outreach around the state and urged the state’s estimated 53,000 marijuana growers to participate in the program, assuming it is approved.

“We don’t think it’s perfect,” he added. “We think it needs to be adaptively managed. But the most important thing for us as a community, as a state, for us as farmers, is to get regulations on the ground, get them working, get people into the system so that we can get the feedback we need to improve the program. So, you know, we’re starting from scratch.”

Thursday’s meeting begins at 8:30 a.m., though there are several agenda items preceding the public hearing on cannabis cultivation rules. The board meets in the David C. Joseph Room, 5550 Skylane Blvd., Suite A.

More information is available at waterboards.ca.gov/northcoast/board_info/board_meetings/08_2015.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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