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Are marijuana growers sucking California dry?

June 9, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Thousands of marijuana farms are depleting California's streams at the height of a historic drought, according to state scientists. Special correspondent Spencer Michels follows along as game wardens, biologists and engineers go in search of marijuana on privately-owned lands -- not to eradicate the plants, but to see if growers are stealing and polluting water.

JUDY WOODRUFF: California’s drought has forced water use cutbacks in urban and agricultural areas. According to state scientists, the situation has been exacerbated by medical marijuana growers.

NewsHour special correspondent Spencer Michels reports on how some pot growers are using water that isn’t theirs.

MAN: There shouldn’t be any problems with threats. If we have a hostage situation, yell out at the officer closest to you, “Don’t shoot me,” fall to the ground, roll to cover.

SPENCER MICHELS: It’s 7:00 a.m. in Fortuna on California’s north coast, and teams of law enforcement officers are preparing for what they call an inspection of cannabis farms deep in the wooded hills of Humboldt County.

WOMAN: It’s a crappy road.

MAN: Did that road go all the way through?

WOMAN: No, it didn’t.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite the way it looks, these are not police officers or sheriff’s deputies or federal officials. They are members of the California Water Board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and their aim is to protect the environment.

A special program provides funds for these game wardens, biologists and engineers to find and inspect marijuana plantings on privately-owned lands, not with an eye to eradicating them, but to see if the growers are stealing water and ruining streams with pesticide runoff.

MAN: We’re really focused on key watersheds. And this one that we’re going to is very important for coho salmon.

SPENCER MICHELS: Adult marijuana plants use five to 10 gallons of water a day. What the scientists have found, and recently published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, is that thousands of marijuana farms like this one are depleting streams at the height of the drought.

Scott Bauer is a senior environmental scientist with Fish and Wildlife.

SCOTT BAUER, California Fish and Wildlife: For the watersheds that we studied, three of four watersheds, we estimate marijuana cultivation can consume all of the stream flow. It’s aggravating the low-flow conditions of the stream. You already have a stream that’s suffering through a lack of rainfall or snowmelt.

SPENCER MICHELS: This farm is owned by an absentee landlord and manned by several workers, one of whom took off when we arrived.

MAN: I think this tank is 305 gallons.

SPENCER MICHELS: Officers found a vast and complicated array of pipes and pumps and tanks and fertilizers drawing water without permits from small creeks that run through the property.

MAN: It’s deep.

SCOTT BAUER: They have a cistern down in a creek. That cistern goes to a 5,000-gallon tank that goes to 20,000-gallon bladder.


SCOTT BAUER: And then they pump it up the hill.

SPENCER MICHELS: Bauer and others count the cannabis plants.

MAN: It’s pretty average.

SPENCER MICHELS: Measure the size of the fields, and figure out the water supply.

SCOTT BAUER: It requires permits. And that’s our job is to issue those permits and condition them so that, yes, you can use water, but there — it needs to be within reason.

SPENCER MICHELS: Estimates are that there are 53,000 cannabis growers in California. Many, though not all, claim to be growing medical marijuana, which, with some restrictions, can be legal under state, but not federal law.

A key tool for those looking for marijuana growing for whatever reason in these hills has been the airplane. California Department of Fish and Wildlife has been using aerial or satellite photography to look for those marijuana growers for quite a while.

SCOTT BAUER: You can see sites plain as day on Google. And then we also do aerial flights to confirm it, that, yes, there is cultivation taking place.

SPENCER MICHELS: What do you see from the air or from Google Earth?

SCOTT BAUER: Typically, greenhouses, outdoor plants. It’s pretty obvious what the cultivation sites are.

SPENCER MICHELS: The sheriff of nearby Mendocino County, where the drought has lowered lakes like this, says the problem is worse on large private holdings.

TOM ALLMAN, Sheriff, Mendocino County, California: There’s thousands of acres in our county of land that’s owned by timber companies and other large investors that is unpatrolled land. And marijuana growers trespass onto this land, and that’s where they divert water from streams into the marijuana groves.

Not many juries in this county will convict someone of growing marijuana. But we go after people who are illegally growing marijuana and stealing water. And our local citizens who are the jurors, they understand this.

SPENCER MICHELS: Wine grape farmers like George Lee, attending a wine growers’ meeting, complain that marijuana producers sometimes actually steal their water.

GEORGE LEE, Grape Grower: They took my water. Makes me angry. There are neighbors that I have that don’t have great access to water. They store water in their ponds during the winter. Some of those people do have a problem with people coming in and siphoning their water.

SPENCER MICHELS: Lee and others are concerned that water levels in streams like the Eel River are low throughout the state, and will get worse during what is expected to be a dry summer.

And that is a huge concern for environmentalists like Scott Greacen, the executive director of Friends of the Eel River.

SCOTT GREACEN, Executive Director, Friends of the Eel River: In the Eel River watershed, we have three runs of salmon and steelhead trout that are really in very serious trouble. They’re listed as threatened on the federal endangered species list.

If there isn’t water in the creek here, then we lose the young coho salmon and the young steelhead trout.

SPENCER MICHELS: In addition, Greacen says, growers often use pesticides and rat poisons, substances that get into the water supply or are ingested directly by animals.

SCOTT GREACEN: When a bird of prey or a snake kills that rat and takes it back to their nest, they’re not only ingesting that poison. They’re passing it on to their babies. It’s something nobody ever considered was going to be an effect of pot growing in the national forests and in our wilderness areas.

SPENCER MICHELS: But whether marijuana growers are responsible for aggravating the drought through illegal water use is disputed by some growers like Patrick Murphy, who leads California Cannabis Voice.

PATRICK MURPHY, California Cannabis Voice Humboldt: Right now, it’s pure speculation. With the introduction of better irrigation styles and also different plant types, we will be able to know what the actual water usage is. But I don’t think that in the middle of a drought, it’s a correct time to study the cumulative impacts of the cannabis industry.

SPENCER MICHELS: What Murphy and many others want to see is cannabis legalized, so that it and its water supply can be regulated. They point to an operation like HappyDay Farms belonging to Casey O’Neill and his family as a model. O’Neill sells his organic vegetables at farmer’s markets, and his very healthy marijuana crop to what he calls patients.

CASEY O’NEILL, Marijuana Grower: We consume it for ourselves, and so we put the love and the energy and the time and the effort into it to produce a connoisseur product.

SPENCER MICHELS: O’Neill gets his water from rain runoff, which he stores in ponds he has constructed on the property and in tanks.

CASEY O’NEILL: So if we store the winter rainwater, then we’re able to use it as farmers without taking water away from the fish. I fundamentally believe that all cannabis grown in California could be grown on stored rainwater with a concerted government effort to support tank programs and support rainwater catchment ponds.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite his good practices, O’Neill, who once was jailed for possession and cultivation, fears that, without regulation, he remains vulnerable.

CASEY O’NEILL: Because the system hasn’t provided regulation, there’s no way for enforcement to say who’s good farmers and who’s bad. And so, as farmers, we live under this constant shadow of fear. You never know. The dogs bark and you think, is that the police?

PATRICK MURPHY: People are no longer talking about whether this is legal behavior or not. They know that this industry is the fastest growing industry in the United States.

We’re craving regulations. We’re also craving the incentives that come with those regulations. So if you’re a compliant farmer and you’re doing a good job as an environmental steward, then you are rewarded with an aboveground marketplace, maybe crop insurance, and stability that this region hasn’t seen for a long time.

SPENCER MICHELS: Meanwhile, wardens and scientists continue look for evidence of water violations at what they admit is a slow pace. In 10 months, they have inspected just 70 groves, and have told 20 to 30 landowners they are in violation of state environmental laws. They call that making a small dent in a big problem.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Spencer Michels in Humboldt County, California.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, Spencer has more from marijuana growers who want better regulation of water. You can read his blog on our home page,