Cannabis Grows Draining Water, Polluting Habitat, Razing Forests, Destroying Watersheds

Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Aerial photos taken by Superivsor Mark Lovelace last year show cannabis-related clearcuts throughout remote wooded areas of Humbboldt County.

Aerial photos taken by Superivsor Mark Lovelace last year show cannabis-related clearcuts throughout remote wooded areas of Humbboldt County.

Daniel Mintz

Eye Correspondent

HUMBOLDT – Environmentally harmful marijuana production has again been documented, this time before the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, and a state official has estimated that it will cost between $3 million and $5 million a year to pay for additional staff to crack down on it.

There’s been a surge in awareness of large-scale grow impacts in Northern California and a panel presentation put the issue on the water board’s radar at its May 2 meeting at Eureka’s Wharfinger Building.

Stormer Feiler, a water board environmental scientist, used a series of photographs to reveal watershed damage that was described as “shocking” by board members and panelists.

There’s consensus that more enforcement is needed to respond to the sometimes outrageous destruction being wrought in sensitive watersheds but federal help is limited and it will be expensive for the state to beef up its response.

Feiler said there’s been an “exponential increase” in the numbers of rural and wilderness grow sites. Many are being recklessly developed and “organized criminal relationships” are apparent, he continued.

The bad practices include grading of forested areas, illegal road construction without drainage, fertilizer and pesticide runoff, spills of oils and fuels, harmful fill depositing, high volume water diversion and wildlife poisoning. Detailing cases that have resulted in prosecution in Mendocino County, Feiler showed photos of large-scale grading that “completely filled three streams” with soil, “obliterating them.” In another case, a property owner excavated about 20,000 cubic yards of earth and debris and resisted a $423,000 clean-up and abatement bill by declaring bankruptcy, he said.

A case of “recreational bulldozing” was also documented as Feiler displayed a photo of a small dozer stuck in a stream channel. It was identified as having been stolen and a prosecution for grand theft was carried out.

Photos of emptied chemical containers, rickety diesel rigs, muddied streams and denuded riparian areas followed. Brad Job of the Bureau of Land Management’s Arcata office said water diversion and other impacts are also being seen on public lands and he told the board he’d “bet my next paycheck” that phosphorous run-off from grows is the cause of blue-green algae blooms in the Eel River.

Job described a case of illegal grading and excavation that was referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which declined to prosecute. Showing a photo of a shoddy-looking diesel generator and fuel storage set-up on privately-owned property, he told boardmembers that profit is being made from fuel deliveries and that the water board has the legal authority to intervene.

Similar presentations have been made across the region and to those who have been at them or read news reports on them, none of it is unfamiliar.

Water board members seemed aghast, though, and when they asked what their agency can do to help, Jeanette Pederson of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said funding more enforcement staff is necessary.

“We don’t have enough Stormers,” she said, referring to Feiler. “Government agencies never seem to have enough staff but in this case, staffing would be of tremendous value.”

It would be a substantial investment. After saying that “the green rush is on,” Scott Bauer of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated it will take up to $5 million to pay for more enforcement. He had given a presentation on a study he worked on that identified grows in Humboldt’s Redwood Creek and Salmon Creek watersheds using Google Earth and about 1,100 grows were mapped.

A conservative estimate would put combined water use in the two areas at about 34 million gallons of water per growing season, Bauer said.

Boardmember Irene Tynes told him that his documentation is a call for action. “The thing that clearly said, ‘I have a responsibility’ was that you proved to me, in two watersheds, that this is happening,” she said, adding that documentation is useful because “we need to prove to other lawmakers that something has to be done.

The state needs assistance to combat a problem that Feiler said is “exceeding our ability to respond.” There was talk of asking the federal government to do more but Tim Broadman, an enforcement agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has doubts about that.

Aerial photos taken by Superivsor Mark Lovelace last year show cannabis-related clearcuts throughout remote wooded areas of Humbboldt County.

Aerial photos taken by Superivsor Mark Lovelace last year show cannabis-related clearcuts throughout remote wooded areas of Humbboldt County.

“I don’t think the federal government is going to bail you out of this,” he said. “California has the best environmental laws, probably, in the world and the problem as I see it is that there’s not enough prosecution.”

State and county laws are “very strong,” Broadman continued but “either we don’t have enough people or, really, we don’t have hungry prosecutors that want to take these things on.”

That led to a discussion on the cultural aspects of marijuana. Boardmember William Massey said the lack of prosecution could be due to marijuana’s benign “public image” but “this isn’t marijuana for fun – this is environmental damage.”

Boardmember Heidi Harris lives in western Trinity County and she said there’s an “absolute culture conflict” between growers and other community residents. But a distinction was made between growers who are known to their neighbors and those who are connected to organized crime or have criminal mentalities.

“You’re not seeing what we are trying to tell you – how they go about conducting their business from day to day, week to week, month to month does not follow any kind of laws and regulations,” Broadman said.

“I guess I’m a hopeful person and I’m thinking the guy that’s the wrestling coach and the guy that’s the baseball coach who says he has a carpentry business on the side actually has something in him,” said Harris. “Because when I look into his eyes and I talk to him, I sense there’s a person in there that cares.”

But the ones who are filling in stream beds aren’t coaching baseball. “If they’re members of the community, you probably have a chance but the problem is, these are not members of anybody’s community,” Massey said.

“That’s right,” said someone in the audience.

Someone else rejoined, “They’re members of their own community.”

The board’s commentary concluded with Board Chairman David Noren underscoring the need for action and saying, “I believe we have a role here, as an agency.”

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21 Responses to “Cannabis Grows Draining Water, Polluting Habitat, Razing Forests, Destroying Watersheds”

  1. Yea, Growing a Green plant and using water is so bad.. At least they are not just clear cutting and leaving the forest devastated like Pacific Lumber and a Few others… I have driven up Hwy 299 and it is disgusting how much forest has been destroyed because of or need for Lumber.. At least with Cannabis it is putting something in the Environment that will help.. If California would regulate this Industry we would have some clear guidelines.. Blame our Legislators!

  2. HBMWD has needed to replace the pulp mill(s) as clients. This is the perfect opportunity.

  3. Kevin Hoover

    Yes! We have vast tracts of underutilized land on the Bottoms, the best cannabis growers in the world, and a shit-ton of water we need to use… what are we waiting for?

  4. Cannabis is not putting anything good into the environment or the culture or the community when it's done this way. Don't blame anyone but people who buy weed from environmentally damaging operations–it's just like buying clothes from a sweatshop. Same principle. Know where your stuff comes from.

  5. Birdie Breeze

    Get the conservation crews in there to clean up and repair and give them armed escorts.

  6. Lawrence Labranche

    I am guessing you missed that these grows were done without permits? Grading, cutting down trees, clear cutting? Putting something in to the environment….. I guess you mean herbicides, pesticides, diesel fuel, weapons which to shoot at people, and dead endangered species? All good stuff and true.

  7. I can show you photos of clearcutting by "legitimate" licensed lumber companies. The damage is a million times what any of these tiny growing operations is doing and why aren't people upset about that? This is sensationalism at it's finest. What do you suppose the "authorities" do to these grow sites if they shut them down? Repair the "environmental damage"? Hell no! They'd destroy any dams or ponds or terraces creating MORE damage. One oil well creates as much environmental damage as 10000 of these grow sites. ALL of this could be done in a more environmentally friendly manner if there were NO legal restrictions to growing a PLANT that could SAVE THE PLANET. Hemp is the only natural resource that could REPLACE all the products now made from the forest being destroyed.

  8. Kevin Hoover

    "One oil well creates as much environmental damage as 10000 of these grow sites."

    1. So what?

    2. Let's see the data to support the "10,000" figure and the "million times" claim.

    That basically encapsulates the cannabis industry's response to the problem – dismissing the information as sensational, directing attention to a different environmental problem and abusing apostrophes. Also, hemp isn't cannabis. Also also, these places aren't growing hemp.

  9. Craig Stock

    Kevin Hoover We need to look at the cause of the problem, prohibition. If you truly want these grows out of the forests, legalize pot. Prohibition is unconstitutional and was brought about by backdoor deals with crooked politicians and businessmen anyway, it's time for the truth and the end of this control BS.

  10. Kevin Hoover

    In other news, the sky is blue, and California voters never bother to pass legalization measures.

  11. Whats up dude. Remember me from Stockton.

  12. Kevin Hoover

    "At least with Cannabis it is putting something in the Environment that will help"
    Can we get some detail on this? What do you mean?

  13. You need to see data? Try breathing some clean air…oh wait…there isn't any left! So what? You are not only ignorant, you're in denial. To me it does not matter if it's hemp or marijuana, it can still save the planet. Just admit that you're totally ignorant of the scale of environmental damage done to this planet by "legit" businesses…oh wait…you already did!

  14. Kevin Hoover in other news we lost our ozone layer thank to ignorant people like you. Thanks

  15. Kevin Hoover
    read these or just google environmental damage from oil wells
    the last one I posted here is a study by a college kid, apparently he's much brighter than you are. Buh-bye!

  16. Kevin Hoover one more thing… let's really make the important distinction here on environmental damage. Who makes nuclear weapons? Is it marijuana growers?

  17. Kevin Hoover

    Dale Clark No, I'm not aware of any link between cannabis growers and nukes.

    But your premise is intriguing: because there are nukes and oil spills, it's OK to wreck the forest to grow pot.

    That's going to be a huge relief to the biologists who are seeing streams and watershed habitat destroyed by the cannabis grows. They can take comfort, knowing that there are other forms of pollution elsewhere, and that makes this allowable.

    But I wonder, Dale, does it work both ways? Does the petroleum industry justify its sloppy practices by saying, "Yeah, but we aren't tearing up the forest for pot, so it's cool?"

  18. It's Ok to wreck the forest to grow pot? I think you missed my point entirely. Any environmental damage is not OK, it's a crime. So lets lock up the REAL criminals, the oil barons and the logging company owners. Stop pretending you care about the Earth because obviously you can't even see the scope of the problems Earth is facing. The corporations are destroying the planet, and pot as you call it may be the only thing that can save it. Actually it may already be too late. Since the soil everywhere is now becoming toxic and only specialized GMO plants will be able to survive in it, the human race may all be enslaved faster than you can say Monsanto.

  19. Kevin Hoover

    Dale Clark You mean we can only prevent one type of environmental destruction at a time? Why must we ignore habitat destruction?

  20. […] Cannabis Grows Draining Water, Polluting Habitat, Razing Forests, Destroying Watersheds […]


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