With marijuana here to stay, next step to regulate its water usage in thirsty California

Behind a gas station, just off the main highway that runs through Garberville, California, is a nursery that sells plants and seedlings. It’s called Wonderland, and by “plants and seedlings” it means cannabis. Its rooms and greenhouses are filled with a pungent array of marijuana plants that can be bought by people with a doctor-signed medical marijuana card. Then they can grow their own.

The openness of the business, in a state which has yet to legalize recreational marijuana, can be shocking to those used to the years of war against cannabis.

“I think people are against it who are still afraid of cannabis,” says Kevin Jodrey, Wonderland’s owner. I talked with him while preparing a report for the PBS NewsHour on water usage by marijuana growers. “I think that the cannabis stereotype still exists, the ‘Reefer Madness’.” But, he says, that is changing, and his nursery is just one sign. “Hopefully people will see cannabis producers, cannabis sellers, cannabis innovators are normal industry business people.”

In the Emerald Triangle, which is made up of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity Counties, in northwestern California, marijuana is big business and getting bigger, but actual figures are hard to come by since much of the industry still operates in the shadows. While it is illegal to grow large plots of cannabis for now, there is little enforcement as the industry expands.

Jodrey sees growing cannabis as a great value. “There’s no other plant you can grow that gives you the same comeback for the money spent. For the amount of water used on cannabis, the margin of profit is phenomenal.”

And he’s not alone in providing evidence that cannabis culture is going mainstream. Several growers groups, including Emerald Growers Association and California Cannabis Voice, are lobbying the state government in Sacramento hard and often to get marijuana legalized in the state, and to regulate it so that all growers will be on the same playing field. The lobbying and the groups are operating in the open — something they couldn’t conceive of a few years ago.

“People really aren’t aware of what they’re doing right or wrong,” says Jodrey. “What they want to be able to do is understand how to behave so they can get a permit, operate and have that stability that normal businesses do.”

Instead, many marijuana growers operate as secretly as they can, in remote areas in the hills, often taking water from streams without permits, or stealing it directly from legitimate farming operations, like vineyards. So while there is little federal or state action to close down growing fields, there is a cursory effort to crack down on illegal water use.

A special program enables armed game wardens and employees of the State Water Resources Control Board to find marijuana cultivation and trace where the water to grow the plants comes from. It’s an expensive operation that takes time and could be dangerous, but state officials and environmentalists say that water theft is depleting streams in a time of drought. In fact, a new study says that of four watersheds examined, three had 100 percent of their water siphoned off by marijuana growers, endangering fish and various other forms of aquatic life. But even here — where there are often clear violations of water laws — there is little penalty for non-compliance. Yes, the wardens can fine those who don’t have permits, but that’s rare. Mostly, they send a letter asking for changes in the water systems that will bring them into conformity with state rules. And once caught, many growers agree to conform.

So the marijuana scene has calmed down, from the days when federal and state agents would swoop down and burn a crop or tear down a greenhouse, and try to arrest the growers. Today the struggle is to get the voters and the lawmakers to accept cannabis growing as a fact, and to draw up rules for the industry to follow. In the Emerald Triangle, that might prove feasible; many growers, especially small operators, seem to want it, though certainly not those operating illegally on public or private land.

But small mom and pop cannabis farms and friendly nurseries like Wonderland may not be the whole future of this industry. What happens when marijuana is legalized, and big agriculture starts growing pot in California’s Central Valley on the scale they grow tomatoes or almonds or lettuce? There’s a question to put in your pipe and smoke.

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