State seeks water rules for pot growers
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.”