As Cannabis Cultivation Grows, California Wrestles With Marijuana's Environmental Impact

Marijuana farms can have a big impact on local environments
Marijuana farms can have a big impact on local environments
Madison Margolin

The environmental impact of marijuana farming remains a major concern as California inches closer to potentially passing Proposition 64, which will legalize recreational weed. Local lawmakers are busily drafting legislation to encourage conservation and to safeguard ecosystems already threatened by pot production.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture plans to release water-use rules next year, which will be incorporated into the state's licensing process that goes into effect for marijuana growers in January 2018. In addition to regulating water use, the measure will allow growers to store water for the first time. Cultivators must identify the source of their water and apply for a permit from California’s newly formed Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation.

Southern California growers have an advantage when it comes to environmentally friendly cultivation because local municipalities work alongside utilities to develop best practices.

Poised to perhaps become a major SoCal cultivation destination, Desert Hot Springs has already received more than 50 applications for grow sites ranging in size from 225,000 square feet to 1 million square feet. These facilities will require large amounts of water, yet the nascent industry is already ahead of Northern California growers, many of which operated for decades on the black market. While their counterparts in the Emerald Triangle — comprising Humbodlt, Trinity and Mendocino counties — play catch-up studying the environmental impact of grow sites, Desert Hot Springs city officials are teaming up with a local agency, the Mission Springs Water District, to ensure that municipalities are ready to act when cultivation centers come to town.

“Our facilities will be managed properly,” says John Soulliere of Mission Springs Water District. “We have yet to receive applications for facilities that are not in areas that were previously developed or disturbed.”

Residents of Desert Hot Springs voted in 2014 to open industrial and undeveloped land for cannabis cultivation after the city confronted an ongoing fiscal emergency. Large swaths of unused land and abandoned buildings made cannabis an attractive alternative to a small municipality that was known for a handful of spas, and lacked the tourist draw of Joshua Tree and Palm Springs. For the struggling community, cannabis cultivation could draw big money in tax revenue.

In the meantime, the city’s water utility is waiting to hear from growers about what their water demands will be after breaking ground. Yet the issue for the Coachella Valley isn't water availability. The region’s water supply comes from an underground source that is replenished by the Colorado River aqueduct. Instead, a lack of infrastructure poses a potential challenge. Soulliere says residents have already restricted their personal water use, but he worries that desert cities don’t have the necessary system in place to feed potential grow sites. As a result, growers will be responsible for paying to expand any existing infrastructure.

“When a developer comes in, they pay,” Soulliere says.

Meanwhile, Northern California growers are coming under fire for not doing enough to prevent environmental damage by large-scale cultivators. A new study suggests certain fish populations are in danger when their waterways are used for pot production. The research team, spearheaded by Jake Brenner, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College, and Van Bustic, a specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension, looked at grow sites in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle. There, in arguably the biggest pot production region in the world, they found that the habitats of two species of threatened fish, Chinook salmon and steelhead trout, were being negatively affected by weed production.

Both of these fish  also were studied in 2015 by California Department of Fish and Wildlife senior environmental scientist Scott Bauer, who found that diminished waterways caused by watering marijuana crops put the fish at unnecessary risk, especially during the summer months. Bauer's study found that “stream flow from this water-intensive activity is likely to have lethal to sublethal effects on state and federally listed salmon and steelhead trout and will cause further decline of sensitive amphibian species.”

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The average cannabis plant requires 6 gallons of water per day. Outdoor grow operations, especially those in the Emerald Triangle, typically take water from unregulated streams and watersheds. While this might provide a convenient solution for growers, research suggests that several threatened species could face lethal consequences if cultivation sites continue to go unchecked.

“The potential conflict between the rapidly growing cannabis industry and the habitat needed by these protected species is thus a federal-level, as well as a local-level, environmental concern,” Brenner and Bustic conclude in their study.

The pair located and mapped greenhouse and outdoor grow sites using high-spatial-resolution satellite imagery via Google Earth. They re-created clusters of crops in a new map and found that most of the production sites were dangerously close to important watersheds. Not only were growers diverting water away from local wildlife, they also were pumping pesticides and other chemicals back into the ground.

“Siting grows in areas with better access to roads, gentler slopes and ample water resources could significantly reduce threats to the environment. Future cannabis policy should take into consideration the potential for mitigating environmental impacts through land-use planning,” the study says.

According to the study, the absence of peer-reviewed studies on marijuana cultivation has hindered farmers from understanding the impact their crops have on the environment. “Currently, there is a lack of basic information on cannabis agriculture as it is currently practiced," the study says.


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