State money available for cleaning former pot grow sites in Sonoma County
Toxic chemicals. Dammed creeks. Forest clear-cuts. Abandoned trash.
These kinds of environmental degradation are the scourge of California’s North Coast, the detritus left behind from decades of highly profitable but unregulated marijuana cultivation.
But in a move state officials hope will make a dent in the thousands of remote sites in need of remediation, the Department of Fish and Wildlife is preparing to distribute $1.5 million for an initial round of watershed restoration projects made necessary by widespread and historically unchecked pot production.
“Existing damage to our watersheds due to unregulated cannabis cultivation is at crisis levels in terms of threats to habitat for aquatic and wildlife species,” agency Director Chuck Bonham said in a written news release.
“While many grow sites have been abandoned or shuttered, the infrastructure and ongoing damage remains.”
The newly launched Cannabis Restoration Grant Program reflects growing recognition of the devastating environmental impact of marijuana cultivation on private and public lands, even as public officials and the public itself moved to legalize its use in California, in part so it could be regulated.
The unintended consequences of clearing sensitive and riparian habitat, damming and diverting streams, and using banned rodenticides, herbicides and other toxins in close proximity to creeks hits at a “gut level,” said North Coast Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg. He prioritized environmental protections in 2015 legislation that established the regulatory framework for medical marijuana.
Visiting sites in his expansive coastal district “was pretty shocking, and it’s been part of why I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing,” Wood said.
Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties have been particularly hard hit — “ground zero for all of this,” he said.
But Sonoma County has been widely affected as well.
The county recently secured a $50,000 CalRecycle grant to clean up significant damage left by a 1,000-plant grow discovered last fall at county Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District land on Mark West Creek, one of four Russian River tributaries designated for priority treatment during the recent drought by the State Water Resources Control Board because it provides habitat for state and federally listed coho salmon.
In addition to a longstanding encampment, a pot-processing area and significant quantities of debris and litter left behind, the growers dug three large water-mixing basins, one of them about 9 feet deep and another right in the stream channel for a small tributary to Mark West Creek, according to Sheri Emerson, the open space district’s stewardship program manager.
“To anyone who loves our natural landscapes, it’s shocking,” Emerson said. “It’s really shocking.”
About two weeks ago, authorities raided a half-acre garden with 3,000 plants on the 1,285-acre Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve near Glen Ellen, finding the landscape damage and debris typical of such grows.
The environmental impacts have not been fully assessed, but the new restoration grant “is definitely something we’re going to investigate to see if it’s a good match,” Emerson said.
“I think it’s wonderful that they’re putting money toward helping solve the issue, and I think it’s great that they’re making the money available so quickly.”
Fish and Wildlife is accepting grant applications though June 30 in what Policy and Administration Manager Matt Wells acknowledged was “a short turnaround,” in order to execute the grants later this year.
The grant program specifically targets watershed rehabilitation that will benefit coho salmon, chinook salmon or steelhead trout — all listed as threatened or endangered species — as well as coastal cutthroat trout.
Funding is available for watersheds in the six coastal Northern California counties most heavily affected by illicit marijuana cultivation: Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, Del Norte, Siskiyou and Trinity.
Eligibility is limited to qualified nonprofits, public agencies or recognized California tribes.
Wood called it “a jump-start” in advance of greater funding expected to be generated through taxes collected on marijuana grown for recreational and medicinal use beginning next year.
Proposition 64, which legalized nonmedical cannabis consumption last fall, specifically earmarks a portion of tax revenues for environmental restoration and protection related to illegal pot production.
“I recognize this is just a drop in the bucket, but we need to get started,” Wood said.
“I just didn’t want to see another year go by without trying to really take a stab at trying to clean up some of these sites.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.