This Aug. 3, 2015 file photo shows a residence destroyed by the Rocky Fire near Clearlake, Calif. The Rocky Fire that destroyed 43 homes in 2015 in a largely rural area north of San Francisco was sparked by an illegal marijuana growing operation, officials said (Josh Edelson, Associated Press File)

California gov commits $1.5M to clean up damage from illegal marijuana grows

California Gov. Jerry Brown is earmarking $1.5 million in his May revised budget for cleanup of environmental damage caused by illegal marijuana farms within the state’s cultivation heartland in Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties.

“These illegal grow sites do untold damage to forests and wildlife along the North Coast and with Assemblymember [Jim] Wood’s leadership, we’re doing something about it,” Brown said in a statement Wednesday.

Nearly 900 marijuana plants and a butane hash lab were seized by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and California Department of Fish and Wildlife from this Kneeland property in June 2014. The investigation found that water was being illegally diverted from a nearby creek and that a large area on the property had been graded and clear cut. (Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office)

The announcement from North Coast Assemblyman Jim Wood’s office comes a day after local law enforcement and California Department of Fish and Wildlife officers eradicated an illegal 3,400-plant marijuana grow in the remote hills of southern Humboldt County.

Sheriff William Honsal said he thinks it is great that the state is providing more support to combat the “huge impact” the thousands of illegal grows have had in the region. But he said the amount allocated is not nearly enough to address the extensive damage caused to ecosystems by decades of illegal diversions, clear cutting and grading.

Honsal compared the environmental damage caused by marijuana grows to the contaminated former lumber mill sites throughout the county, and he fears that the damage could be even more widespread.

“We need more resources and more deputy sheriffs dedicated to these illegal grows,” Honsal said. “… I think further supporting the sheriff’s offices in these three counties will ultimately help people come into compliance with state law and be contributors instead of takers from the system.”

‘Closing the loop’

The announcement comes a day before Brown is expected to release his May revise of the 2017-18 state budget. Wood (D-Healdsburg) said he has been working with Brown’s office on this issue since 2014 when he introduced one of three bills that would eventually become the state’s newest and more comprehensive regulations on medical marijuana. Wood said environmental restoration was a major focus of his bill and said he felt like the funding is “closing the loop” on those efforts. Wood said he met personally with Brown about a week ago to discuss the need for the funds.

“Some of the pictures and narratives from our state agencies and some of us in the Legislature I think was enough to help bring some funding along and get started with the process,” Wood said. “It’s not going to be nearly enough, and it’s a start.”

Wood said it has yet to be determined how the funding would be split between the three counties, but he said he will be advocating for the funds to be used first in areas that are most heavily impacted.

Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton “Chuck” Bonham states the funding will be used as part of the Fisheries Restoration Grant Program that was created to address impacts to wild populations of salmon and steelhead trout. Illegal water diversions, clear cutting, grading, pesticide contamination and general pollution by illegal marijuana grows have impacted wildlife on the North Coast and has contributed to declining fish habitat to threatened species like coho and Chinook salmon on the Eel River.

“The $1.5 million will help us continue to clean up the egregious environmental damage, specifically to California’s waterways, caused by illegal marijuana cultivation sites,” Bonham said in a statement.

Thousands of butane gas canisters litter the site of a butane hash lab in southern Humboldt County after an explosion in November 2014. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

The $1.5 million will be additional funding on top of continued funding for the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Watershed Enforcement Team, which was created in 2014 to address environmental impacts caused by marijuana grows.

Wood said that illegal marijuana operations not only pose a danger to wildlife, but to firefighters, hikers and law enforcement.

“Our beautiful pristine forests have become havens for these illegal grow sites,” Wood said in a statement. “These illegitimate growers have continued to ignore not only state laws for farming cannabis, but have left these sites ravaged by lethal chemicals, clear cutting and thousands of pounds of trash.”

County discussions

At its Tuesday meeting, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors discussed how it would handle marijuana grows that violate the county’s marijuana regulations. First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, who represents a large portion of Southern Humboldt County, was among the supervisors advocating for enhanced enforcement of farms that are not seeking to become legalized under the county’s and state’s marijuana laws.

“If they don’t come in and get permitted there is very good chance they will be having a visit,” Bohn said Wednesday morning. “And hopefully the first people on the list are the ones causing ecological damage affecting our watersheds our rivers and our aquatic wildlife.”

Trinity County Supervisor Judy Morris said in a statement that the importance of the state funding cannot be underestimated.

“The cleanup of these areas will also serve to deter any future rogue growing activity, since the associated infrastructure is a significant cost,” Morris said.

An unspecified amount of tax revenue from the state’s recreational marijuana legalization measure Proposition 64 will also be dedicated to environmental cleanup of illegal marijuana grows. But Wood said that those tax funds may be needed to launch the state’s regulatory system before any comes to environmental cleanup. He said the $1.5 million will act to “jump-start” enforcement activity in the meantime.

Humboldt County is also taxing its medical cannabis farms and is expecting to generate $2.2 million in additional revenue in the 2017-18 budget year. Honsal said he plans to request part of those funds be used to hire three new deputies for the sheriff’s office’s marijuana drug enforcement unit.

“Right now we have two people and three people over the summer,” Honsal said of the unit’s staffing. “That is not nearly enough. We need at least double that number to go out and to make an impact. We want to go after the most egregious violators. And to do that we need more resources.”

Humboldt County 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell said county funds can only go so far, and that there is need for further state support.

“With the federal government threatening to pull enforcement funds, it’s now more important than ever for the state to step in and help us address these problems,” she said. “…The environmental impacts of egregiously illegal cultivation practices have been a central concern of our efforts to regulate cannabis growing.”

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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