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Google Earth image of the Mad River in 2014. Notice the drastic difference in water level. | Photo by Bryan Donoghue (using Google Earth)

A Joint a Day Causes Fish to Decay


Water diversion for illegal grow operations has significant environmental impact

Fish need water, and so does marijuana, but people may not realize we’re approaching a point where it’s between one or the other. Many illegal grow operations divert water from streams, which is the most common environmental crime committed, according to Sergeant Kerry Ireland of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office.

Time lapse photography of the Mad River taken from Google Earth. This Google Earth image was taken in 2004. | Photo by Bryan Donoghue (using Google Earth)
Google Earth image of the Mad River in 2014. Notice the drastic difference in water level. | Photo by Bryan Donoghue (using Google Earth)

Ireland is in charge of the Special Services Division of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. He said that there are currently no investigations going on having to do with environmental crimes, but they have seized 135 thousand plants from over 100 marijuana grows, and issued 51 search warrants in 2016.

“That’s just a drop in the bucket for the number of marijuana plants that are in Humboldt County,” Ireland said. “There’s also at least 20 thousand cultivation sites in Humboldt.”

The adverse effects of marijuana cultivation are presently more than just an environmental crime, it’s harming our wildlife too.

Darren Ward is a fisheries biology associate professor and researcher of freshwater ecology at Humboldt State.

“There’s a real direct reason we should care,” Ward said. “There’s endangered salmon and steelhead that live in those streams. There are cases where they’ve been documented to die when stream flows are reduced because of water withdrawals.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, when stream flows are reduced, they are categorized as a low-flow. Summer low-flows are particularly extreme because higher heats cause water to evaporate a quicker rate.

Marijuana plant discovered at an illegal grow site near Shelter Cove. The land was torn, with plastic littering the ground. | Photo from Eureka Sheriff’s Department

“If for no other reason, it’s important to care about that because it’s a violation of federal law,” Ward said.

Sergeant Ireland works with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife conducting investigations on environmental regulations that are broken. If there is a water violation, he contacts the State Water Resources Control Board, where they assist each other by investigating independently and then sharing their findings. Ireland finds that more marijuana grows continue to appear, and now they’re widespread throughout all of Humboldt County.

“It is everywhere,” Ireland said. “It’s literally in all parts of the county.”

Plenty of research is in progress to map how widespread grows are. Redwood Creek is a major contributing stream flowing into the Eel River. It is also one of the areas where major property subdivisions and land-use changes have taken place in the last 50 years, according to geography alumna Cristina Bauss.

Bauss took a look at the heavily impacted watershed of Redwood Creek in her bachelor’s thesis. Coincidentally, Redwood Creek was one of four watersheds studied by Senior Environmental Scientist Supervisor Scott Bauer associated with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Bauss used Google Earth imagery from 2014, whereas the Bauer used imagery from 2012. Bauss duplicated Bauer’s study to examine the difference in greenhouse capacity and found an 18 percent increase in two years. That’s an exceptional amount of land being used for marijuana.

Simplified map of marijuana cultivation sites in the Redwood Creek watershed. Light-gray circles represent clusters of greenhouses, by number; outdoor growing sites are mapped individually. Sites outside the boundaries of the watershed are on parcels that straddle two watersheds, and were recorded because they may draw water from Redwood Creek and/or its tributaries. | Map Cristina Bauss. Sources: USGS Earth Explorer, County of Humboldt, CAL FIRE.

The trend in growing greenhouse capacity is a growing concern. Ward voices concern as to what will happen come next season.

“When next summer rolls around, and the flows start to drop and the temperature starts to come up,” Ward said. “If there’s an additional water withdrawal in the stream, that’s when it’s going to be really hard on the fish.”

Ward said that historically, when people weren’t withdrawing water, then those streams were still connected and the salmon and steelhead could move to a lower spot in the stream to avoid overheating. Currently, due to water withdrawals, these pools aren’t connected anymore so there’s not as much area to swim for cover.

Andrew Stubblefield, a hydrology and watershed management professor at Humboldt State University finds that the salmon and steelhead are facing a crisis, but marijuana is not the most significant contributor to water deprivation in Humboldt’s watersheds.

Stubblefield explained that thousands of giant trees drive the water use of a watershed, and a small change in the amount of water those trees get would create a dramatic difference in summer low-flows for these watersheds by shrinking water levels further.

“It’s not really going to be affected by a tiny greenhouse with a bunch of plants in it,” Stubblefield said. “I’m not saying there’s no effect of the marijuana industry, but forest management is also a big part of the issue with water right now.”

Stubblefield finds that water diversion for marijuana grows can still have consequences. “When the rivers get down to the summer low-flow, particularly during our drought years, there’s enough left in those rivers to be like the amount you run in your shower; it’s a tiny amount,” Stubblefield said. “So it’s very vulnerable to having that remaining amount be pumped out.”

Not all Humboldt growers contribute to low-flow. One of Humboldt’s self-proclaimed “mom-and-pop” growers for 38 years, who goes by the alias Terry Giaci, uses sustainable practices and eco-friendly methods of cultivation that do not contribute to low-flow.

She moved up to Humboldt County in 1980 from San Francisco as a horticulture student because a friend she had met in SF wanted her to come up and help with the crop he was growing. With no cellphones, and only a citizen’s band radio to talk with others, she worked her way up Southern Humboldt by herself and became integrated as an active member of the community, supporting local restoration projects.

“We’re the back-to-the-land people who grew marijuana to live this life,” Giaci said.

“If you grew weed, you didn’t live in town. We lived in the hills. There were the town people, and the hill people. We were people that cared about the land, the land got a chance to heal.”

On Giaci’s property, water flows from three springs through pipes and spring boxes. Giaci also has assistance from a hydrologist she knows personally. Access to water is steady, and since the streams are on her property, Giaci doesn’t illegally siphon water. Giaci also uses all natural organic materials; this infers materials that are not petroleum based or are made from petrochemicals.

“It’s the difference between chicken shit, and nitrous oxide that’s created in a chemical plant,” Giaci said.

According to Giaci, you have to be aware of who you’re buying from.

“There are people, especially now, who just don’t care. They’re just in it to make money,” Giaci said. “They think they’re cool, and that they’re great growers, but they spray all kinds of crap on the plant.”

Giaci explains that the greedy growers are stealing all the water, and trying to become to majority of the population, and they might succeed.

“Greed is on the rise here, people are coming here now thinking they can get rich,” Giaci said. “Humboldt County is going to be in a huge transition mode. There are now a lot of people, what they call the ‘green rush’, who are coming up here and paying exorbitant prices for pieces of land.”

Humboldt State hydrology professor, Andrew Stubblefield, finds that marijuana contributes to water diversion but the issue is much larger than weed.

“The issue is larger than the marijuana. That’s part of it but it’s something else. I think it’s climate change, I think it’s forest management.” Stubblefield said. “I think of the coho and steelhead that are using those habitats in the summer. Those are the fish that are already struggling to survive, and having the river run dry is like their final coup de grace.”

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