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October 13, 2009

Marijuana growers worsening California drought

by Eoin O'Carroll

Large marijuana plots hidden deep in California’s public lands have illegally diverted hundreds of millions of gallons of water, compounding shortages caused by the state’s ongoing drought.

Public officials in Mendocino County, a region on California’s north coast known for its lush redwood forests and potent cannabis, have witnessed rivers and creeks drained by the large-scale drug operations.

“They’re using a whole lot of water.” said Lt. Rusty Noe of the Mendocino County sheriff’s office in a telephone interview with the Bright Green Blog.

Lt. Noe noted that police have seized more than 500,000 pot plants this season in Mendocino County alone. Each plant requires about one gallon of water per day. California is entering the fourth year of a severe drought, with residents in some areas facing the first mandatory water restrictions in two decades and farms laying of thousands of workers.

“It’s really affecting our water supply,” said Noe of the illicit growing sites.

Noe also cited other environmental damage caused by the plantations, including the dumping of toxic chemicals and erosion of soil and underbrush.”These camps are just unbelievable,” said Noe, who noted that the problem is getting steadily worse each year.

“It is making a huge resource impact,” Dennis Slota, a hydrologist with the Mendocino County Water Agency, told the Bright Green Blog over the phone. Mr. Slota said that he knew personally of two steelhead trout streams that are now dead from illegal water diversion.

Slota suggested that most of the environmental destruction is caused not by Mendocino’s local pot growers, who have long taken advantage of the county’s mild climate and tolerant views toward the drug, but by mostly Mexican crime syndicates that, in the 1990s, began planting large plots deep in the woods, which they would abandon after the October-November harvest.

His views are echoed by Ron Pugh, a US Forest Service special agent, who was quoted in the spring issue of Terrain, a Northern California environmental magazine:

Says Pugh about the sheer volume of grows, “This is not a hippie thing.” He’s come prepared with a list of comparisons between a “hippie” grow and a DTO site—one maintained by a drug trafficking organization. A traditional garden on public lands, Pugh says, has one or two growers and fewer than fifty plants. The gardener, who lives locally, hikes in every other day or so, carrying water for his plants. Firearms are uncommon, and locations are predictable. “They’re within a quarter mile of a road,” Pugh explains, “and they’re rarely uphill. White guys are lazy.”

The DTO sites, on the other hand, are as remote as the growers can get, often three miles from the nearest road. They contain an average of 6,600 plants, tended by an average of seven growers who live in tents the entire season, from May to October. The growers are aided by scanners, radios, night-vision goggles, an arsenal of weapons, and truckloads of plastic pipe to divert area streams to their plants, sometimes from as far as a half-mile away. When they abandon the site in the fall, they leave behind mountains of trash, about as much trash as a small city dump.

Writing for Blue Living Ideas, a news website that covers water issues, Jennifer Lance notes that only 1 in 8 of those arrested in Mendocino this season for growing marijuana are from the county. She also notes that the county’s district attorney is investigating at least one recently seized grow operation for “environmental crimes” and “water diversion,” on top of drug crimes.

Christian Science Monitor

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