State Department of Fish and Wildlife officers recently joined law enforcement teams in inspecting pot farms that are believed to be draining a half-million gallons of water a day from Northern California's Eel River. The visits were part of an effort to crack down on large-scale grows that are illegally diverting water on one hand and winning cooperation from smaller growers in monitoring water use and environmental impacts from marijuana cultivation on the other.
The twin campaigns, the focus of a feature and video in the Sacramento Bee on Sunday, are getting a mixed reception from cannabis advocates. They applauded the focus on oversight and permitting of growers under the state's existing medical marijuana laws. But many are angered that police raids on pot farms haven't stopped. Fish and Wildlife wardens still regularly assist local law enforcement in raids on commercial-scale marijuana growers accused of fouling the environment.
The new compliance efforts are an ambitious experiment in a state with an estimated 50,000 marijuana gardens spanning Central Valley foothills, the Sierra Nevada and the North Coast. In Humboldt County, where the value of marijuana production is estimated at $1 billion, authorities say there are more than 4,000 outdoor cannabis gardens, and an unknown number of indoor sites.
Amid the state’s prolonged drought, Gov. Jerry Brown last year approved $3 million in funding to dispatch oversight officers and environmental scientists to identify and inspect water-thirsty pot gardens in sensitive natural settings. Officials from the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Fish and Wildlife so far have visited 150 sites with growers’ approval. They have issued instructions on water conservation and filed 50 notices of environmental violations.
The compliance program kicked off with 11 full-time officers from the state water board and seven from Fish and Wildlife. The specialized team primarily has focused on small and medium-scale marijuana growers in the upper Central Valley and North Coast. Under pending legislation, the program stands to be expanded statewide.