Side effects

 

In a video released last fall by the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research, Google Earth zooms in on Humboldt County, Calif.'s forested hills. Cruising the ridges from one watershed of this virtual landscape to the next, one gets a bird's-eye view of the hundreds of new roads, out-buildings, and even the tall, leafy pot plants that define northern California's "Green Rush."

All these marijuana farms on private lands are theoretically legal under California law, which allows licensed growers to sell to the state's medical marijuana dispensaries. But because the federal government still regards marijuana as a dangerous and illegal drug, California's marijuana economy straddles a legal question mark that's kept regulation, including enforcement of environmental rules, at bay.

The rise of the cash crop has been especially baffling to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which oversees the area's streams. With a separate Google Earth project, the agency recently counted over 1000 "grows" in two watersheds that feed the South Fork of the Eel River, an area less than 60 square miles. The agency estimates that these grows divert as much as 30 percent of summer stream flow, stressing the endangered Coho salmon that spawn there.

Marijuana grows identified by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in a tributary of the South Fork of the Eel River

"I'm not sure we're at a point where we comprehend the significance of this issue," says Scott Bauer, Coho recovery coordinator with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. "This is one of the biggest issues for Coho salmon recovery."

Fish and Wildlife wants to collaborate with growers to establish practices, like scheduling water pumping in order to prevent sudden draining of streams, that safeguard water and species like Coho, but the agency faces numerous challenges. Growers are hesitant to apply for water-use permits because they think it might attract federal prosecution. And the agency, which can bust growers for violating stream rules, is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. Since 2009, the number of grows in the two Eel River tributaries has more than doubled, as California's laws have become even more marijuana-friendly -- in 2010 the state's Supreme Court struck down limits on the amount of pot residents can grow or possess -- and growers seek to cash in before more widespread legalization makes the crop less lucrative.

"There's still some misconception that the issue is illegal, Mexican cartel grows" on public lands, says Bauer. Those grows contribute to the overall environmental impact, he says, but "the biggest marijuana cultivation activity is occurring on private lands" under the auspice of providing legalized medical marijuana. Most of the crop actually goes to illicit recreational markets out of the state.

Humboldt State University faculty member Tony Silvaggio, who made the Google Earth video of marijuana grows, says this lack of regulation is causing all kinds of environmental problems, not just low stream flows. Sediment run-off from new roads and pesticides is degrading water and rodent poisons are killing off forest critters and birds. High Country News and others have reported on these problems before, but it can be hard to visualize the impact and scale of industrial pot growing in Northern California. That’s where Silvaggio’s video comes in.

In a narrated version of the video for Mother Jones, Silvaggio suggests that the solution to the widespread environmental damage wreaked by industrial pot growers is to end the federal prohibition of marijuana, a sentiment shared by Gary Graham Hughes, executive director of the Arcata, Calif.-based Environmental Protection Information Center. “(Marijuana) is clearly something that's here to stay," he said.

“This vacuum that's created by the way the federal government continues with prohibition, it's making it very difficult to address the environmental issues."

Marshall Swearingen is an intern at High Country News.

Image courtesy California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!