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More than 86,500 marijuana plants were seized this week during a four-day eradication operation in the heart of Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, where law enforcement officials from three counties also reported finding “egregious” environmental violations.

The plants, along with cash, firearms and thousands of pounds of dried pot, were confiscated from the remote Island Mountain region where Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties meet. Some 30 to 40 people — mostly law enforcement officers from the three counties’ sheriff’s departments, assisted by Fish and Wildlife and a handful of National Guard officers — participated in the assault on what they say were obviously illegal growing operations, most of which included more than 1,000 plants each.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said Friday it was among the largest pot eradication operations since a six-county action in 2011, dubbed Operation Full Court Press, that removed some 630,000 plants from the Mendocino National Forest.

“This is one of the largest we’ve had,” he said. The entire area, composed of parcels ranging in size from 40 acres to 160 acres, contained one of the highest concentrations of illegal gardens in the three-county region, Allman said.

“This was the most abusive area,” he said.

Four people were arrested during the operation, including three in Mendocino County and one in Trinity County. In most cases, the growers took off before law enforcement officers arrived. Allman said he suspected they’d been tipped off by radio reports about the endeavor.

But investigations into the gardens are continuing and further arrests are likely, the sheriffs said.

The operation began to take shape in April, when Allman said he first discussed cracking down on the Island Mountain area with the sheriffs from Humboldt and Trinity counties. He said he’d received numerous complaints from area residents as well as pilots who had flown over the region and were appalled by the environmental degradation they saw.

Law enforcement officers found “egregious environmental issues,” Allman said.

Fish and Wildlife Lt. Chris Stoots said his department’s team found 97 environmental violations, 55 of them related to streambed alterations. Creeks have been dammed, filled in with dirt and diverted in order to make way for and provide water for the thirsty pot plants, which have been conservatively estimated to each use about 6 gallons of water a day. Investigators found large water tanks at several locations and, in one case, a gigantic bladder used by a marijuana farmer to store water.

Allman estimated the plants seized were sucking up some 500,000 gallons of water a day.

There also were cases of unlawful grading on a large scale, with half-acre pads being bulldozed for cultivation, Stoots said.

He said water in a nearby fork of the Eel River was hardly flowing and was full of algae, likely generated by runoff from fertilizer.

“There’s a broad spectrum of environmental damage there,” he said.

The raids come at a time when growers, state regulators and law enforcement leaders are trying to work together to hammer out rules in anticipation that California may follow other states and legalize marijuana for recreational use. An initiative is widely expected to go before the state’s voters next year.

“We need them to be partners and collaborators” in creating regulations, said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, an advocacy group for medical marijuana farmers, business owners and patients.

The raids “are the absolute opposite of that,” Allen said.

Allman said the growers are well aware of current regulations and that they need to follow them until they change.

“The laws haven’t changed yet,” he said.

Marijuana advocates in Humboldt and Mendocino counties have said they don’t have personal knowledge of the pot farms targeted in the raids but they believe most were probably what they would consider small farms because they were growing smallish plants in a manner that gradually deprives the plants of light to fool them into flowering early. Allen said those plants produce between an ounce and a quarter-pound of dried marijuana, rather than the 2 to 4 pounds from larger plants.

Allen is listed as an owner of one of the parcels that was raided this week but said he’s not involved in growing pot and has previously attempted to remove his name from the deed.

“A thousand (of those) plants is a small farm,” Allen said. He said the smaller plants also use less water than tree-sized ones, in part because they have a shorter growing season.

Allman said the smaller plants can produce 2 to 3 pounds of processed pot.

Of the plants confiscated, 45,553 were in Mendocino County, 23,211 were in Humboldt County and 17,725 were in Trinity County. Humboldt County officials said the pot eradications they conducted were “average” for their department.

Mendocino County served nine search warrants during the eradication operation; Humboldt served seven; and Trinity served four, the sheriffs said.

Last summer and fall, the state’s 59-day Campaign Against Marijuana Planting — better known as CAMP — seized 66,818 pot plants from Mendocino County, 37,455 from Humboldt County and 90,283 from Trinity County. The figures do not include plants seized by local agencies without state assistance the rest of the year. Statewide, CAMP confiscated 833,966 plants last year, down from the 939,722 eradicated in 2013 and less than a quarter of the 4.5 million seized in 2009, according to CAMP statistics.

Allman said he and the other sheriffs plan to revisit Island Mountain in the fall and crack down on those who continue to flout the law.

“I have every reason to believe the grows will continue,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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