Here's Why Your Weed Habit Is Bad for California's Salmon

Should we be sacrificing wild salmon just to get high?

(Photo: Ray Kachatorian/Getty Images)

Feb 6, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

An increasingly stark problem is facing California, a state in the middle of a historic and crippling drought: salmon or weed?

For all its happy, laid-back, live-and-let-live connotations, marijuana isn’t so benign when it comes to the environment, at least when we’re talking about its cultivation.

Nowhere, it seems, is that more apparent than in the “Emerald Triangle” of Northern California—the counties of Mendocino, Trinity, and Humboldt—which comprise what experts believe is the largest pot-growing region in the United States. As Jefferson Public Radio, the NPR affiliate out of Southern Oregon University, reports: “As the hills have sprouted thousands of new grow operations, haphazard cultivation is threatening the recovery of endangered West Coast salmon and steelhead populations.” Overfishing and industrial impacts of logging and farming have dramatically reduced salmon stocks in California waterways such as the Eel River, which runs through the Emerald Triangle.

Although new conservation efforts have helped populations to rebound—30,000 salmon and steelhead swam up the Eel to spawn in 2012, up from 3,500 two years before—the new, booming industry is hurting the nascent recovery. In part that’s because growing marijuana requires a lot of water, some three to six gallons per plant. “It’s possible that in some watersheds, marijuana cultivation is consuming all the water available for fish,” one salmon recovery expert with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife tells the radio station.

Humboldt County, for example, can ill afford to spare the water right now: The U.S. Drought Monitor last week declared the entire county is suffering extreme drought conditions.

It’s not just pot growers’ unquenchable thirst that’s causing problems for salmon recovery, though. There's also the pesticide and fertilizer run-off, the severe erosion—the kind of industrial-scale impacts you see with industrial-scale agriculture. In places like Humboldt County, weed farming increasingly resembles the chemical- and resource-intensive monocrop approach practiced with corn and soybeans in the Midwest.

In the almost 20 years since California legalized the sale of medicinal marijuana, thousands of new growers have set up shop. An aerial tour using Google Earth created in 2011 by Anthony Silvaggio, an environmental sociologist with Humboldt State University, and posted by Mother Jones, shows some of the devastating impact, with large swaths of forest mowed down to make room for illicit grow operations.

This goes on pretty much entirely unchecked. “The fact that it’s unregulated is a real problem,” Silvaggio says in the video. “Talking with agricultural commissioners of different counties, they report to me that it’s difficult for them to help growers that want to do the right thing because they can’t talk about it because it’s federally prohibited, and they get federal dollars.”

Yes, that’s right: In yet another bizarre consequence of the country’s schizophrenic position on pot, even as states like California allow medicinal marijuana to be sold—and quasi-legally grown—the feds don't, leading to another nonsensical “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation (and we all know how well that worked with gays in the military).

“There’s just this tremendously complicated legal environment which makes it really hard for farmers who would like to come into compliance, who would like to use best practices on their farms, to make progress,” Hezekiah Allen, an environmental consultant and third-generation Humboldt County resident, tells Jefferson Public Radio. Allen, however, has helped to develop a “manual of best practices” for growers, which details how they can minimize the environmental impact of their operations.

“There’s probably no such thing as a perfect, zero-impact farm,” Allen tells the radio station. “But if we give people the information and the knowledge they need, they will make improvements.”

The salmon sure hope so.