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
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]