California is in the middle of the drought of a century, and water is running low everywhere. The situation is especially bad in the Emerald Triangle, the famed pot-growing region on the North Coast, where marijuana farmers are draining creeks and rivers dry.
The local officials who deal with these cultivators have tried to regulate their water use before. But there’s something standing in the way of rational environmental policy: the federal government.
Medical marijuana has been legal in California since voters approved it in a 1996 referendum. Campaigns are the in the works to legalize recreational weed as well.
The Emerald Triangle, made up of Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties, developed into the state’s principal producer of cannabis, both for medical purposes and otherwise.
But pot remains illegal at the federal level, and that has set up a conflict between locals and officials from Washington, who view all marijuana as illegitimate.
Weed is a deeply ingrained part of the culture of the Emerald Triangle. It’s a notoriously close-knit community in which almost everyone has some kind of connection to the marijuana trade.
Cultivating cannabis is a labor-intensive process that uses up many resources. Unregulated, it can leave a mark on the environment. Biologists and fishery experts are worried the current drain on the water supply along the coast could lead to a drop in future numbers of spawning salmon.
“Marijuana cultivation has the potential to completely dewater and dry up streams in the areas where [farmers] are growing pretty extensively, said Scott Bauer, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
There’s no way to know how much of the current problem is caused by the drought and how much is really caused by cannabis growers, but local leaders have seen them as enough of a problem to try to regulate them in the past – to no avail.
In Mendocino County, officials sold cultivation permits for two years starting in 2010. They convinced farmers, already leery of the feds, that a permit and county regulation would give them legitimacy and would sift out the illegal growers.
The permits brought in half a million dollars annually, which the county used to crack down on illegal farmers. And cultivators complied with the rules.
But federal authorities decided to shut the program down. They raided the growers and threatened to sue the county unless the permits were revoked. The regulations ended in 2012 and growers went back to working in secrecy, without oversight.
“That put an end to the attempt to regulate outdoor cultivation in California,” said Dale Gieringer.
Since that time, the Obama administration has promised not to interfere with states that legalize recreational or medical weed, but farmers in the Emerald Triangle don’t trust the paper that promise was written on. U.S. attorneys in the state continue to prosecute providers who obeyed state laws, and the DEA continues to target California’s medical market with full force.