Scott Bauer is way into weed—professionally, that is. An environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, he got into the stuff around 2009, when he and other wildlife officials began stumbling upon large marijuana farms destroying natural habitat in northern California. The more they looked, the more destruction they found.
“Trespass grows” on public land or private timberland are especially “horrible,” Bauer says. The worst guerilla growers bulldoze redwoods to clear space for illegal crops, carve out poorly constructed roads that shed sediment into waterways, and siphon enormous quantities of water from streams to feed hundreds or thousands of thirsty pot plants. The forest, he says, is often eerily silent—the wildlife wiped out by poaching and excessive rodenticide that kills vermin that might snack on the valuable plants, along with those animals that might snack on the rodents.
“We hadn’t seen this kind of damage since the old logging era,” says Bauer. “It seemed like it was getting out of hand.”
The scientist found himself doing something he never expected to do: going along on police raids of illicit grows. Bauer has now taken part in “dozens and dozens” of searches, which always follow the same protocol. First, local enforcement officers go in and secure the site. “People run, people get caught. It’s not uncommon to find weapons,” he says. Once the area is clear, it’s time for Bauer to document the violations, from diesel spills to dead animals to water diversions.
California legalized marijuana for medical use in 1996, and cannabis cultivation is allowed in the state, though subject to myriad restrictions. Since then, weed has become a multibillion-dollar industry in the Golden State, which has an estimated 50,000 pot farms. Californians may have the option of voting to legalize recreational use come November, as Alaska, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon have all already done.
Over the years, as Bauer and colleagues investigated more and more grows, they found that nearly all of them—from small medicinal plots of two dozen plants on private land to illegal operations growing thousands of plants for recreational use—diverted water without obtaining the appropriate state permit. By some estimates, a single marijuana plant grown outdoors requires six gallons of water per day.
“It’s all flavors,” says Bauer, referring to the types of diversion. People dig ponds where there’s a natural spring, or they tap streams, running pipes downhill for hundreds or even thousands of feet. And in 2015, after several years of drought, some growers were found to be trucking in water that was likely stolen from fire hydrants or other off-limits sources.
Diverting surface water could prove deadly for aquatic species. In a study published in PLOS One last year, Bauer and colleagues demonstrated that under drought conditions, water demand for marijuana cultivation in three of the four northern California watersheds they examined could reduce flow so much that it would likely kill federally protected salmon and steelhead trout. “You get three years of a stream going dry, you’ve lost coho salmon,” says Bauer. Sensitive amphibians, such as the coastal tailed frog and torrent salamander, would also probably suffer.
To stem such destruction, last year the state created a new joint task force between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Resources Control Board. The CDFW’s watershed enforcement team (it’s acronym is, fittingly, WET), which Bauer is a part of, now has the authority to directly issue citations to growers and fine them up to $8,000 per day for violating water quality regulations. Previously, charges had to be brought by district attorneys.
But Bauer’s group does more than hand out fines. It’s also working to help growers obtain the permits they need to operate legally. This involves ensuring they capture enough water in storage tanks during the rainy season to sustain crops throughout the summer, and that they repair degraded riparian habitat through tree planting or other measures.
Some farms already have such practices in place, but even then it’s unlikely that they’re operating legally. Bauer estimates that only 1 percent of the roughly 5,000 growers in Humboldt County alone have permits. But more and more pot farmers are starting the application process. “Oh, yeah, we have been incredibly busy,” he says. So busy, in fact, that several more staff are being added to WET.
“The increase in the number of water tanks stored up here in just the past year is astronomical,” he says, noting one sign of possible progress. Whether people will actually use them, especially in a year that has swollen streams to more than 100 percent of their usual flow, is yet to be seen.
The legal pot industry is relatively young in California, and regulation is still in its infancy, but Bauer is hopeful that growers will, if not necessarily embrace, at least abide by practices that protect watersheds and the wildlife that inhabit them.
And those who don’t? “They’ll be dealt with,” he says.
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