State seeks water rules for pot growers

Initiative designed to encourage environmentally friendly marijuana cultivation to protect Northern California waterways and fisheries.|

State officials have begun rolling out a new environmental initiative designed to win the cooperation of marijuana growers in protecting Northern California waterways and fisheries from the kinds of degradation that commonly result from pot cultivation.

A team of state and local agency representatives conducted a series of unannounced inspections last week of gardens in the Eel River watershed near Garberville, visiting 14 properties over three days along Sproul Creek. The creek went dry last summer for the first time in many years from what environmental officials believe was the combined effects of drought and unregulated water withdrawals for marijuana irrigation.

Part of a larger effort to address watershed damage, environmental contamination and illegal water diversions that have continued unregulated for decades in remote forests up and down the state, the undertaking includes a plan to develop water quality standards to which growers can be held accountable or face fines and other penalties.

The multi-agency endeavor targets those who cultivate pot on private lands, with landowner permission, and is aimed at creating a system of regulation designed to help growers farm in an environmentally friendly manner while authorizing enforcement action where necessary.

There are no plans to pull or destroy plants.

The program is aimed primarily at regulating the activities of those legally growing marijuana for medical use, though water quality regulators plan to focus on what’s happening environmentally and not whether a grower has Proposition 215 medical marijuana documentation.

The goal is instead to encourage the growing community toward proactive steps that protect the environment, said Cris Carrigan, director of the Office of Enforcement for the state Water Resources Control Board.

Education and outreach are key pillars of the program, and Carrigan and others already have met with scores of stakeholders, including trade groups and growers. The enforcement piece is also weighted heavily toward what he called “assisted compliance” to help growers meet established standards, he said.?Carrigan said that many officials believe it is likely state voters will legalize recreational use in 2016, and that part of the focus on regulation now is aimed at being ready for that.

Program architects are asking that growers contact regulating agencies in advance of starting a garden, getting permits for activities such as grading, chemical use and storage, water diversions and any operations in or around waterways.

It’s a tall order, but should make sense to medical marijuana collectives and private growers who want to create sustainable business models that acknowledge the potential for wear and tear on the land, Carrigan said.

He said the North Coast region is leading the way and will be the first to develop a regulatory scheme for marijuana, and that lots of people are watching.

“It’s a very complicated area of the law and of regulation - a new frontier in many ways,” Carrigan said, “but in many ways we have many of the tools we need available. It’s just gathering them all into the right tool box.”

The challenges are myriad nonetheless, given the legally gray area in which medical marijuana growers operate because of conflicting state and federal laws, the participation of potentially violent criminals, gangs and drug cartels in cultivation, and the vast numbers of gardens - tens of thousands - estimated on the North Coast alone. The state’s manpower is limited and the inspections labor-intensive. There is distrust and skepticism on both sides.

Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, a trade organization created in part to promote best practices in the marijuana industry, said his group “strongly supports” environmental regulation for marijuana growers. He said many already engage in sound environmental practices and water conservation that don’t get the same press coverage as “environmental atrocities” that cast a bad light on everyone.

But he also acknowledged the reluctance of many growers to bring attention to themselves for a variety of reasons, including the divide between a state law under which medical marijuana use and cultivation are legal, and federal law, under which all cannabis remains illegal, and local enforcement that continues to ensnare medical marijuana farmers, he said.

“It’s a very, very unique challenge to regulate this industry,” Allen said. “I really can’t think of a parallel anywhere in history. The timber industry came into regulation in 1972, but there wasn’t the stigma and history of paramilitary prohibition that is in this industry.”

Carrigan acknowledged “a lot of potential for it not to work.”

But ignoring the industry’s environmental impact is not an option, despite the complexities and the temptation to look the other way, he and other state regulators say.

“It is an exponentially increasing water quality and water supply problem,” Carrigan told members of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board on Thursday.

Within the medical marijuana community, there is a hunger for guidance and the opportunity to reduce environmental impacts, as well as a desire to weed out those who would exploit the land for profit without regard for the consequences, Carrigan and others said.

The state water board and Department of Fish and Wildlife lead the multiagency endeavor, a pilot program currently funded for one year under an approved budget proposal pushed forward by Gov. Jerry Brown. It includes $1.8 million to fund 11 positions with Fish and Wildlife and the water quality agencies for the North Coast and Central Valley, the two regions helping to develop the protocols.

The program is not intended to deal with growers illegally squatting or trespassing on private or public lands, which is prevalent, nor those associated with gangs, cartels, interstate trafficking and the like.

Carrigan said inspectors would be visiting high-risk, garden-dense watersheds in the months ahead, based on aerial, satellite and Google Earth imagery identifying areas where marijuana is grown.

Sproul Creek was selected for the first field test because of its environmental value, California Fish and Wildlife Warden DeWayne Little said.

The creek is home to five endangered salmonid species, including a key population of coho salmon that were prevented last year from migrating upstream to spawn because of the diminished water, officials said.

The inspection teams included personnel from the state water and regional water quality control boards, the Division of Water Rights and the Humboldt County sheriff’s personnel. They carried administrative warrants permitting them to inspect the gardening operations but got consent from landowners without the need to use them, Carrigan said.

Inspectors found examples of common issues related to cultivation in steep canyons, Carrigan said, including improper grading that can lead to sediment discharge and potentially contaminated runoff reaching the creek. Some growers also had disrupted gravel beds necessary for spawning because of cisterns and other water-diversion systems installed into the creek bed and banks without necessary precautions.

There were also possible violations involving illegal water diversions and storage, and discharge of waste to the water possibly tainted by pesticides or fertilizers, officials said.

But the landowners and renters contacted were generally cooperative and interested in learning how to improve their operations, Carrigan said, and most of what the teams found, if properly corrected, could be brought within environmental standards.

The regulators and Fish and Wildlife personnel will be reviewing their observations in the coming weeks to determine what, if any, violations need to be addressed or citations issued.

”It’s a brand-new thing,” Carrigan conceded. “These people have been living under the radar for a long time. It’s daylighting these issues.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or 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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