California Cracks Down on Water-Hogging Pot Growers

Regulators for the first time order marijuana farmers to protect rivers and streams.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Aug 17, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

Marijuana farming is big business in Northern California’s “Emerald Triangle." It’s also a huge water user in a state suffering through an epic drought, with some growers diverting entire streams to keep their cash crops green. Other pot plantation owners—there are nearly 20,000 weed farms in Northern California alone—are polluting streams and rivers and damaging stream banks by illegally siphoning away water.

Statewide, there are 50,000 grow operations. Each pot plant sucks up six gallons of water a day, and growers can pack in about 100 plants for every 2,000 square feet.

Now, regulators at the North Coast Regional Water Board are cracking down, imposing for the first time rules on pot farms that require growers to protect waterways and clean up the messes they’ve already made.

“It’s a high-value crop, and you don’t need a lot of land to grow this, unlike other crops,” said Matt St. John, the regional water board’s executive officer. “But marijuana is a thirsty crop, so growers are diverting streams and pumping groundwater, which is drying up streams and depleting ground and surface water resources.”

The average pot farm is between 2,000 and 5,000 square feet. Although medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, regulation of pot growers has lagged. That has allowed operators to clear and grade land out of sight in the sparsely populated northern reaches of the state. That can send sediment into streams, hurting fish such as the endangered coho salmon.

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“When streams go dry, it’s not just aquatic life; recreation outlets for fishing, swimming, and boating dry up for people,” St. John explained. “There are also anecdotal cases of people’s water supply becoming depleted.”

The new regulations require anyone cultivating more than 2,000 square feet of marijuana to adhere to standards governing water quality, erosion, irrigation runoff, and use of chemicals and fertilizers.

The worst polluters must develop a plan to clean and restore their land with guidance from a licensed geologist or environmental engineer.

“If they’ve degraded a stream or wetland, they will need to get permits to do restorative work, which can cost thousands of dollars,” St. John said.

But will wary pot growers sign up for the program?

“I’m hopeful we’ll have 25 percent enrollment in a year’s time, and we’ll keep reaching out to more growers,” St. John said. “We’re hopeful we’ll have widespread cooperation, and we have the authority to enforce the order.”

To ease fears, the order is phrased to require enrollment in the program by those who grow marijuana or have “similar operations,” so farmers will not have to actually admit they are growing pot, which remains illegal under federal law.

Nor will they have to specify whether they’re growing medical marijuana, which is legal in the state, or marijuana for recreational purposes.