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
  • FIELD MANAGER
    Organizational Overview: Columbia Riverkeeper (Riverkeeper) is a successful nonprofit organization that unites communities to fight for clean water and our climate. Riverkeeper advances high-profile campaigns...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation is searching for a driven and creative leader to build a movement, conserving and restoring America's rivers by helping customers find...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Deputy Director/COO who will have the overall responsibilities of general program management, staff management, financial & budget management,...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • 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...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...