WASHINGTON — In drought-hit California, marijuana growers are feeling the heat, accused of using too much water for their thirsty plants and of polluting streams and rivers with their pesticides and fertilizers.
State officials say a pot plant sucks up an average of 6 gallons of water per day, worsening a shortage caused by one of the biggest droughts on record. They say the situation is particularly acute along California’s North Coast, where the growing pressure to irrigate pot threatens salmon and other fish.
“This industry _ and it is an industry _ is completely unregulated,” said Scott Bauer, a fisheries biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “What I just hope is that the watersheds don’t go up in smoke before we get things regulated and protect our fish and wildlife.”
California is also the most popular state for pot producers to grow crops in U.S. forests, accounting for 86 percent of the nearly 1 million plants federal officials seized in 2012.
“Those are lands that you and I own,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat. “And when people are growing dope there and guarding their operations with guns and the likes, and sometimes with booby traps, we can’t use the land that we own. It happens all over.”
The situation is a complicated one in California, which passed the nation’s first medical marijuana law in 1996, allowing people to possess and grow pot, even though the federal government still bans the drug.
Medical growers who tend their crops on private property object to getting lumped in with the illegal growers who are trespassing on federal lands.
They say they’re a scapegoat in the debate.
“It’s really easy to point fingers at a very large cash crop that’s completely unregulated. It’s one of the main cash crops of the state,” said Kristin Nevedal of Garberville, Calif., the founding chairwoman of the Emerald Growers Association. She doesn’t grow marijuana herself but she’s the spokeswoman for the group, which has about 400 members.
Public officials are taking aim at both the legal and illegal growers in many ways.
In pot-rich Mendocino County, the sheriff’s department is cracking down on growers who steal water.
In Sacramento, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown proposed in his January budget to spend $3.3 million to enforce pot cultivation rules to protect water and endangered species.
As part of a drought-fighting plan on Capitol Hill, Thompson and 13 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives from California want to give the Drug Enforcement Administration $3 million to get rid of the large pot operations in public forests.
In 2012, U.S. officials discovered illegal pot plots in 67 national forests in 20 states, including 252 sites in California. Washington and Colorado, the only states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, ranked second and third, respectively, followed by Idaho, Georgia and Kentucky.
At raided sites, authorities have found widespread damage, including miles of irrigation lines, propane tanks, and rat poison and other toxic chemicals that end up in streams.
California Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, a co-sponsor of the drought bill, said the forest growers were “operating without any environmental awareness.”
“They’re using the water illegally. They’re using the land illegally. They’re growing an illegal product,” Garamendi said. “And they’re probably protecting that product with illegal weapons.”
Nevedal and other pot backers said the ultimate solution was for Congress to fully legalize the drug, which she said would eliminate the need for growers to hide in the wilderness and truck in their water.
“When logging was unregulated, we saw horrific environmental consequences,” she said. “And it’s so easy for the media to pick up stories of grow sites that have been raided or busted. It’s really hard to show a contrast of folks who are really doing a good job. What is being put out is the small percentage that are really blowing it.”
Ellen Komp, the deputy director of the California chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the fracking of natural gas was guzzling up “tremendous amounts of water” in the state and that grape producers used much more water than the marijuana growers did.
“Basically, this is a case of marijuana being blamed for much more than it is responsible for,” she said.
For biologist Bauer, who’s been using Google Earth images to study the scope of the operations, the link is clear. He said 24 tributaries of the Eel River in Mendocino and Humboldt counties went dry last summer _ and all of them had been used to water pot operations.
Bauer said it was common to see marijuana growers driving pickups with water tanks. And he said state officials last summer had chased down reports of trucks with 5,000-gallon tanks siphoning water from already-low rivers.
“That was happening all over the place _ and good luck trying to catch them,” he said. “We did catch one person doing it. We tried to capture others, but they’re pretty wily.”
Thompson recalled one brazen theft in Napa Valley two years ago, when a pot grower laid a pipe across two property lines to hook into a neighbor’s electrical system to pump water to his crop.
Thompson, along with Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and three other House members from the state, wants the U.S. Sentencing Commission to create new penalties for environmental damage caused by pot cultivation. But he said the popularity of marijuana in some parts of the state had made it difficult to get juries to convict anyone on pot-related charges.
“It’s hard, because a lot of times if someone is arrested, it’s in an area where a lot of this is prevalent, and it’s not always the easiest thing to get a jury of your peers to convict you,” Thompson said.
Neither Thompson nor Garamendi said they were ready to fully legalize marijuana, though both acknowledged that it would make it easier to control growers.
“In Washington state and Colorado, the growing of marijuana becomes legal and regulated. That’s not the case in California,” Garamendi said.
Thompson said he was ready for a debate on the topic. That’s likely to happen in 2016, if pot backers succeed in their plans to get legalization on the state ballot.
“If it were legal and regulated, you wouldn’t have the growers ruining the countryside,” Thompson said.
For now, Bauer hopes state lawmakers this spring will approve the governor’s plan to add another 18 people to the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Resources Control Board to confront the issue. Bauer said the state particularly needed more game wardens and scientists.
With no end in sight for the state’s long drought, Bauer is expecting more dry streams.
“We know it’s going to be a bleak summer for stream flow and for fish and wildlife,” he said. “We’re going to have to try and make it work.”