SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Fish and Wildlife officers have recently joined local narcotics teams in inspecting pot farms that are allegedly draining a half million gallons of water a day from Northern California’s Eel River as part of a unique state effort to identify growers willing to work with authorities to monitor water use and environmental effects from marijuana cultivation.
The program is applauded by cannabis advocates who support oversight and permitting of growers under the state’s existing medical marijuana laws. But many are angered that police raids on pot farms haven’t stopped. Fish and Wildlife wardens still regularly assist local law enforcement in raids on alleged commercial marijuana growers accused of fouling the environment, the Sacramento Bee reported Sunday.
The new compliance efforts are an ambitious experiment in a state with an estimated 50,000 marijuana gardens spanning Central Valley foothills, the Sierra Nevada and the North Coast. In Humboldt County, where the value of marijuana production is estimated at $1 billion, authorities say there are more than 4,000 outdoor cannabis gardens, and an unknown number of indoor sites.
At their first inspection of 20 cannabis farms during a two-day operation in late July, a team met brothers Steve and Howard Harvey. Steve, 74, is a retired attorney, and Howard, 71, a former construction engineering contractor. They have adjoining properties where they have grown pot for more than 40 years.
The brothers allowed the team of environmental scientists, led by Connor McIntee of the water board and Tobi Freeny of Fish and Wildlife, to inspect Howard’s 50-plant marijuana garden. The fenced ridge-top plot was modest compared with the vast cultivations common in the area, but appeared to exceed county marijuana guidelines, which allow up to 200 square feet of growing space on larger properties. No citation was issued.
“Everybody up here when we bought this place just grew a lot of pot. It wasn’t an industry,” Steve Harvey said. He described seeing “not dozens, but literally hundreds” of water tanks hauled up into the forest in recent years to store siphoned water.
Meanwhile, police raids continue. In June, Fish and Wildlife agents joined sheriff’s narcotics enforcement teams from Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties in raiding pot farms near Island Mountain on the North Coast. The teams eradicated 86,000 marijuana plants, saying the farms were causing environmental harm.
Authorities described the farms as commercial operations with thousands of plants that were draining an estimated 500,000 gallons of water a day from tributaries to the Eel River.
“We don’t know how they got it there. But that water either came from springs feeding into the Eel River or the Eel River itself. Either way, the river lost,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said.
State officials say they have no choice but to pursue both avenues. The compliance program brings in farmers willing to cooperate with authorities, and the raids hold accountable scofflaws operating with blatant disregard of guidelines.