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Summit Brings Together Environmental Experts, Public Safety and State Officials to Discuss the Impact of California’s Illegal Marijuana Grow Sites

Illegal Growing Uses Significant Water, Pollutes Watersheds

May 1, 2015
Room 127 in the Capitol was filled to capacity on Wednesday as legislators and their staff attended an almost two-hour discussion on the dangers of illegal marijuana growing in California.
These dangers comprise the environmental effects and public safety threats that result from these operations. The event came about from a resolution on this issue passed by the League General Assembly in 2014 calling for collective action between stakeholders including the state, local governments and environmental organizations, to address these effects.  
Dr. Mourad Gabriel of the Integral Ecology Research Center served as the keynote, bringing to light the rippling effects of these trespass grows on public and tribal lands. This cultivation, which relies on banned and restricted pesticides and herbicides, destroys natural habitat, pollutes water sources, and poisons wildlife. He reported that 60-70 percent of all the marijuana grown in the U.S. is cultivated in California.
Dr. Gabriel pointed to some startling examples from a cleanup of seven illegal grow sites in Six Rivers National Forest and the Trinity Alps Wilderness. The reclamation specialists cleared 205, 50 gallon sized, garbage bags and 8.5 miles of irrigation line total. They calculated that these sites diverted 67.5 million gallons of water per grow season, used 8,188 pounds of fertilizer, 104 pounds of rodenticide and 560 gallons of insecticide. Three of six sites tested showed that they are contaminated with toxicants that are either restricted or banned.
Part of his research included collecting samples of deer meat and livers from cooperative hunters. He found that the meat and livers tested positive with the same types of poison used to protect marijuana crops by illicit growers. There has not been enough research to show what potential human health impacts there may result by consuming tainted meat over long periods of time.
He also warned that backpackers and hikers who regularly rely upon natural water sources may be at risk as backcountry water filters are incapable of removing these types of toxicants from water.
For decades, Arcata, as part of the Emerald Triangle, has been a hotbed of illegal cultivation. In recent years, the number of grows has skyrocketed and has literally changed the fabric of the community. Arcata Council Member Mark Wheetley, the summit moderator, spoke about the devastation the industry has had on his college community.
“I appreciate the Governor’s leadership on this issue. All stakeholders must join the Governor and Legislature in order to stop the significant impacts caused by trespass grows and the threat to our residents and visitors posed by growers,” remarked Council Member Wheetley as he opened the session.
Two legislators, Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) and Assembly Member Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) offered their insights from representing an area of the state where a significant amount of marijuana is cultivated. Both have introduced legislation related to medical marijuana cultivation.
Sen. McGuire is the author of SB 643, the Medical Marijuana Public Safety and Environmental Protection Act. The measure passed out of its first committee, the Senate Business and Professions Committee, on April 20.
Assembly Member Wood’s bill is AB 243, the Marijuana Watershed Protection Act. The Assembly Committee on Environmental Health and Toxic Waste passed the measure this week.
Public safety is a major challenge of the proliferation of illegal marijuana growing on public and tribal lands. According to Dr. Gabriel, law enforcement is estimated to detect and eradicate between 40-60 percent of the trespass growing sites. Of those, they are able to fully eradicate and clean about 30-50 percent. Law enforcement has detected approximately 2,100 trespass growing sites on public lands alone between 2010 and 2014.
Other speakers during Wednesday’s summit included:
  • Cris Carrigan, director of the Office of Enforcement of the California State Water Resources Control Board;
  • Scott Bauer, senior environmental scientist, Department of Fish and Wildlife;
  • DeWayne Little, lieutenant, Department of Fish and Wildlife;
  • Mark Imsdhal, warden, Department of Fish and Wildlife;
  • Lyle Chan, warden, Department of Fish and Wildlife; and
  • John D’Agostini, sheriff, El Dorado County. 
Marijuana Cultivation and the Drought
California’s ongoing drought is raising awareness about the amount of water illegal marijuana cultivation consumes as well as how the chemicals and fertilizers used in the process degrades the water supply in the area and downstream.
Voters in November 2014 approved Proposition 1 (Water Bond). Prior to Gov. Jerry Brown issuing California’s first mandatory water restrictions, he proposed emergency legislation to allocate Prop. 1 funding and remaining flood-related funding from Prop. 1E (2006) to deal with the drought. A portion of these funds will address the harmful effects of the drought connected to the contamination of habitat and water sources due to marijuana cultivation.
AB 91 provides the following funding related to the drought and could help address environmental impacts of illegal marijuana cultivation:
  • $14.6 million is being appropriated to respond to problems caused by humans that harm wildlife such as fish rescues, fish and wildlife monitoring, animals seeking food and water.
  • $2 million is being appropriated to the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) for water needs for endangered species, habitat, monitoring and water delivery system projects.
  • $4 million is being appropriated to the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRC) and DFW to enhance instream flows in at least five streams that support critical habitat for anadromous fish. 
The package, through AB 92, also establishes funding to enhance DFW’s regulatory powers to penalize and fine those responsible for water diversions and environmental degradation specific to illegal marijuana growing. DFW has new authority to assess civil penalties for obstructing fish passage due to illegal marijuana cultivation. The agency is also now able to initiate a complaint before the SWRCB for a violation from an unauthorized diversion that harms fish and wildlife.

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