In the last couple of years, California’s medical marijuana boom has transformed pot into the new gold. But in the rural, mountainous region between San Francisco Bay and the Oregon border, known as the North Coast, pot farmers are starting to look a lot like eco-terrorists.
Researchers have recently discovered that marijuana growers routinely chop down trees, poison wildlife, and are diverting millions of gallons of water each year from rivers and streams. Moreover, greenhouse operations sap so much water and electricity that indoor pot cultivation may account for nine percent of the state’s total household electricity use.
Growing pot, even for medicinal use, is legally a bit fuzzy: Federal law forbids it and the state of California doesn’t regulate it. Already operating on the fringes, marijuana farmers who could get water permits regardless of their preferred type of crop often illegally siphon it instead.
On the Eel River, where scientists from the state’s Fish and Game Department have been trying to rehabilitate endangered coho salmon, growers are diverting an estimated 18 million gallons of water each year.
“You extrapolate that for all the other tributaries, just of the Eel, and you get a lot of marijuana sucking up a lot of water,” the department’s head scientist for coho recovery, Scott Bauer, told the Los Angeles Times. “This threatens species we are spending millions of dollars to recover.”
Other scientists have discovered that pot farmers are wielding a poison called carbofuran to kill bears and other animals that raid their camps. A rare carnivore called the fisher is dying in large numbers thanks to rat poison used to protect plants.
The list of pollutants and poisons that are scattered into the environment as a result of marijuana production isn’t short. It includes fertilizers, human waste, plant hormones, diesel fuel, miticides, rodenticides, fungicides, soil amendments.
People and dogs that swim in the region’s waterways are susceptible to health threats created by toxic blue-green algal blooms — blooms that are believed to be the result, in part, of nutrient runoff from marijuana grows.
The environmental fallout isn’t likely to end any time soon. The scale of the operations is enormous, and only getting bigger. As the market is flooded with product and prices have dropped, farmers have begun planting industrial-size crops as a way to turn a profit.
A recent raid by local law enforcement turned up a 26,600-plant operation on a Trinity River tributary, and a Google Earth scan revealed a four-acre parcel of land dotted with 42 greenhouses.
Enforcement of the litany of violations is a Sisyphean task for the Fish and Game Department, which only fields a staff of 27 within a region that’s thousands of rugged square miles in size.
“There has been an explosion of this in the last two years,” Bauer said. “We can’t keep up with it.”