In Northern California, the relationship between water, weed, money and the environment seems more complex than ever. But as legalization barrels onward, there are still high hopes of saving the legacy farms that have survived this far.
However, as legal cultivators no longer fear the buzz of helicopters thanks to thick and expensive stacks of paperwork, many now find themselves in a new battle to provide their plants a basic necessity.
The Emerald Triangle feels the brunt of that stress. Droughts and fire have complicated life worse than ever in recent years. Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties make up the triangle and comprise 7% (26,557 square kilometers) of the total land area of the state of California according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). CDFW works with legal cannabis cultivators to ensure proper steps are being taken to protect the environment and is a major stakeholder in water conservation as it looks to protect the biodiversity of Northern California from streams running dry.
CDFW noted in a 2015 study that despite the land mass of the area, it’s only home to only 0.62% of the state’s total population. If the Emerald Triangle were one big city it would be the 17th largest in the state, beating out San Bernardino by about 16,000. That means there is plenty of room for everybody to spread out.
But despite the sparse population, there have been a broad array of impacts from marijuana cultivation on aquatic and terrestrial wildlife in California according to CDFW. Additionally, they say much of it has only recently been documented by law enforcement, wildlife agencies and researchers.
Some of the biggest problems currently on the department’s radar include the loss and fragmentation of sensitive habitats. This is happening via illegal land clearing to make room for cultivation sites in even more remote parts of the region away from the prying eyes of the legal market and logging. The CDFW said they’ve even seen reports of streams being completely buried or being loaded up with nutrients, petroleum products and pesticides.
Another major problem is called surface water diversions. This is when natural creek and river water is fed to the irrigation system for a pot farm. There are a few worst-case scenarios including the now contaminated water seeping back into its source and reduced water flows that completely de-water streams, killing a lot of the stuff that lives in them.
The problem is a lot worse when it comes to unregulated farms that also grow near a permanent water supply.
This stuff has been the baseline facts of the situation for many years. We reached out to CDFW to see where things stand in 2021, five years removed from Prop. 64 changing the face of cannabis cultivation on the hill.
Right off the bat, a spokesperson for CDFW said there are many cannabis cultivators in the regulated market that are employing wildlife-friendly farming practices. The department even profiles Huckleberry Hill Farm, Ganja Ma Gardens and Sunboldt Grown on its website.
After noting the positive examples, the state went over current enforcement efforts.
“With investigations into illegal cannabis cultivation, our primary focus is on sites with the most significant environmental damage,” CDFW told L.A. Weekly. “Illegal cannabis operations that are in high priority watersheds (those with high biodiversity and important salmon and steelhead populations) or sensitive habitat would be an example of our enforcement priorities.”
CDFW also noted its enforcement efforts are largely coordinated with county, state and federal entities depending upon the circumstances. CDFW said it works closely with state and regional water boards and the Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) to combat illegal operators.
“California’s cannabis legalization framework preserves authority to take strong action – including felony prosecution – against illegal cannabis cultivators who jeopardize California’s natural resources,” CDFW said. “Substantial diversion or obstruction of rivers, streams, or lakes or illegal discharge/dumping of waste in ways that threaten water resources would be two examples of egregious activities that could result in a felony charge. Under Fish and Game Code section 12025, civil penalties can be levied against a landowner or occupant who has violated one or more environmental laws in conjunction with commercial cannabis cultivation.”
CDFW reminded that the code applies to both licensed and unlicensed operations and the civil penalties are added to any criminal fines. CDFW uses this authority on egregious environmental cases that threaten fish, wildlife and the habitats they depend on to survive.
“The total amount of civil penalties ordered to date is over $2 million,” CDFW said. “While all the cases to date have been on unlicensed cannabis sites, the focus is on environmental impacts from the cannabis cultivation, not the legality of the operation.”
Even though the CDFW has spoken to the legality of farms not being a main factor in their enforcement, most point to unlicensed farms as 95% of the problem when it comes to surface water diversion in sensitive watersheds. We asked CDFW if that was a fair sentiment?
“An analysis of total water demand for all cannabis cultivation relative to other water use demands in certain regions in Northern California has shown that the cumulative acreage of those cultivation sites is relatively small when compared with estimates of more traditional types of agriculture and uses a fraction of the water that other types of irrigation use in those counties,” CDFW replied. “Although CDFW does not regulate or typically investigate water hauling, we have received a large number of complaints regarding water haulers illegally diverting water from drought-impacted rivers to supply unlicensed farms.”
CDFW also noted most of the bulk water hauling complaints originate in areas where commercial cannabis activities are banned and that rely primarily on groundwater.
“The Water Boards investigate complaints of surface water diversions including bulk water hauling and aggressively prosecute violations,” CDFW said. “Bulk water hauling from groundwater sources is subject to local agency enforcement. Local city, township and county governments have authority to regulate water hauling and other bulk water uses but must adopt ordinances or other requirements to exercise that authority.”
Our next question for the state was whether the problem had gotten worse in the years since legalization.
“The current volume of water complaints received by the state is consistent with that of the previous drought,” CDFW replied. “In partnership with our allied agencies (local law enforcement, county licensing authorities and DCC), we are making progress to eliminate the environmental impacts of unlicensed farms.”
But as those who operate on the other side of the line hide deeper and deeper in the woods away from the prying eyes of legal operators, the challenge to make sure the state’s species are protected increases.
“Some unlicensed operations are moving to even more remote locations and counties with limited enforcement resources, which can make it challenging to protect fish and wildlife resources. Many local governments across California have also chosen to ban commercial cannabis activities, limiting pathways for legal, regulated operations that, through regulation, better protect our environmental resources,” CDFW replied. “Overall, we believe our enforcement efforts are reducing the heavy ecological footprint that can result from illicit farms.”
In the end, the easiest thing for the state, cultivators and the environment is just following the rules when it comes to water and preserving the natural habitats of NorCal’s other residents.
“Follow the rules and regulations of the state licensing authority (DCC), state environmental agencies (CDFW and Water Boards in particular) and local authorities. These rules are meant to protect California’s public trust resources, the fish and wildlife we all care for and benefit from,” CDFW said. “Also, remember, the state wants to work with cultivators to help them with any compliance issues and recognizes that each operation has its own set of circumstances.”
The farmers have their own tales to tell of the situation, among them Wendy Kornberg, CEO and president at Sunnabis. Water issues have been one of Kornberg’s main problems in recent years in Humboldt County.
As a result of a lack of water for years, and then droughts after she was finally allowed to install a rain catchwater pond in 2019, Kornberg has only been able to run at about a third of the farm’s current operational capacity. Only doing one run of light deps a year when she should be pulling three resulted in millions in lost profit over the years. Especially in the years prior to recent floods of pot that have seen prices crash.
Kornberg started with the idea that much of the surface water problem was going to be unlicensed due to the microscope people like her are under. But there’s even more to it.
“Yeah, I would agree with that,” Kornberg told L.A. Weekly. “But even deeper than that my opinion is that part of what’s being ignored is the fact that they’re allowing these massive diversions, but not surface water diversion, so well water diversion.”
Kornberg pointed to one example where a large California operator scored 11 acres right on the river. Allegedly, the well water network on the property is fed from a separate water system detached from the river, but Kornberg remains baffled by the science of it due to its proximity to the water.
“These people have enough money to pay for these reports that ‘prove’ that their well where they’re going to drill is hydrologically disconnected from any surface water,” Kornberg said. “And the reality? I mean, I don’t know. I would have to do some more research, but it seems logical to me to assume that all water is connected
somewhere at some point.”
Kornberg has been dealing with water issues since 2016 when she first came to terms with the county on an agreement that she could use water deferred from the surface until she had her pond built. When she originally got on the property, she was under the impression there was well water. Unfortunately, the hole was only 16 feet deep. That meant the hole was full of diverted surface water, not well water.
“When they started asking for our well logs and well reports I was like, okay, so I called the man who was carrying the note [on the property] and I said, you know we got to get the well log, and he was like, ‘What’s a well log?’ and I was like, ‘Oh, we’ve got a problem,’” Kornberg said.
While the county worked with her, the process would take years.
“We also decided that we did not want to put in what we call a tank farm, which is the 5,000 gallon plastic water tanks that are daisy-chained together,” Kornberg said. “Because those were the only ones you could do, and I believe this still holds true in Humboldt County, you don’t need a permit for 5,000 gallon water tanks. So you can put as many as you want out. However, the environmental impact of creating those tanks out of plastic is absolutely ridiculous. The amount of line you have to run to chain them all together. I did not want to go down there ethically and morally. I said this is not our path. We have this pond that we are getting permitted. We spent $10,000 having it professionally engineered, you know? And we submitted it to building and planning and Humboldt County, and the building and planning department approved it within, like, a week or two.”
But regardless of the planning department’s speed, she needed a final sign-off from the county. After spending three years in limbo, Kornberg was at her wit’s end.
“So we were pretty much at the point where we were out of money, we were out of health, I could not get an answer from our building and planning department why they would not give me the permit [to start construction on the approved design],” Kornberg said. “So I sat down on the steps of Building and Planning. I called my engineer Kim Preston in tears and I said, ‘Kim, I’m done, I have an opportunity to move to Florida and possibly try and work on a grow there and I think I’m gonna take it because I can’t do this anymore. I cannot operate another year.’ You know all of our things are gone, we had huge loans, personal loans that we borrowed money from people so we could continue to operate, continue to pay taxes and fees and all the things for 18,000 square feet of cultivation when we were running 5,000 square feet of cultivation as like dep once because that’s all we had the water to do.”
Preston shook down the county and Kornberg was given permission to build the pond after all those years.
“We managed to bang it out in 15 days before we were disallowed to continue moving soil and all my friends and neighbors came out and helped us get it done because I couldn’t afford to pay for it at that point either,” Kornberg said. “There’s no way I can move forward. I’ve absolutely been strangled by this problem. So I called out to the community and I said I need help and a bunch of guys showed up with big tractors and things. The agreement was if I could pay for diesel that they would help me with time. It was amazing.”
A few weeks later Kornberg got some brutal news. The only thing that had held up that pond permit over the years was an environmental impact report that would have run about $2,000.
“I asked why I was not given the permit and they said you needed to do a biological wildlife study to make sure there were no sensitive species in the area that you were going to build the pond. So for three years they were sitting on this permit, and nobody would tell me that that’s what I needed to do,” Kornberg said. “But the fact that for three years the county wasn’t telling me what I needed to do in order to move forward, literally the loss of probably $2 to $4 million that we could have been making had we known that all we needed was the report.”
Adding to the perils of small farmers in the hills, their sprawling competition in the Central Valley has few water issues to compete with at the moment.
“And so now, on top of all of that, we have the state that said, ‘Oh, we’re not gonna issue all these big licenses’ and then they allow people to stack licenses so now all of a sudden we’re competing against 100 acres of weed, that’s coming out of Southern California,” Kornberg said. She noted further, at this point, Southern California is “just like, yeah, go for it. We don’t even care. Use all the water that’s being piped in from everywhere else because fucking, whatever.”
Much of the time in the water and cannabis debate, the farmer is turned into the bad guy. Kornberg is someone who has spent years working to preserve the ecosystem around her farm. We asked her to weigh in on that kind of sentiment.
“Yeah, it’s a super bummer, and, you know, one of the other things that the water board did was the fees that they put on are not based upon how much cannabis you grow, they’re based upon the square footage of everything that you grow,” Kornberg said.
Kornberg said if she was a small vegetable farmer, she would not be beholden to the waterboard fees or NOIs, notice of intent to discharge.
“They’ve got something else. Now there’s a small cannabis irrigation use registration. Like there’s all these water board fees that come piecemeal $2 to $500 to $1,800 to $2,400, once to twice a year. As a vegetable farmer, you don’t have to pay any of those,” Kornberg said. “As a cannabis farmer, if you have 5,000 square feet of cannabis, and then you have five acres of vegetables, you’re paying at the top tier for your entire area, not just the cannabis.”
We asked Kornberg if this disincentives regenerative farming practices meant to maximize the use of the land as people don’t want any extra crop bumping up their fees?
“Yeah, absolutely, because if you’re a vegetable farmer it’s going to really cause you to think whether or not you actually want to do cannabis and as a cannabis farmer, it’s going to cause you to really second guess growing vegetables,” Kornberg said. “Which is ridiculous, because we need more food for people. So, when it comes down to it, we have a plan for a build-out of an entire five acres of veggies, but that will push me into the top tier of water board fees.”
A few weeks ago, when we talked with Brandon Parker of 3rd Gen Family Farms for The Mendo Dep Report, he spoke to us about the county’s current water problems.
“Oh god brother, don’t get me started,” Parker told L.A. Weekly as the subject of water first came up. “Dude, I bought a water truck this year. They’re going after the people on the road bro, my dad! So first I got the water truck in April, the day before Gavin Newsom made the announcement at Lake Mendocino and said, ‘Mendo got a drought and the state has got an issue.’”
While Parker’s water truck purchase foreshadowed the state’s move, there has still been plenty of stress.
“They told us we couldn’t pump water from the water district. We said, okay. We had to prove that we were a legal grow and everything I had to bust out paperwork, we went back and forth for like two weeks,” Parker said.
Additionally, he had to prove that water would not be an additional burden on the supply and what his farm has always been using over the years. Finally, they get approved for the water truck.
“My dad’s been trucking water with this new water truck. So now they’re going after truckers,” Parker said. “They limited the number of trucks allotted by these water haulers. They’re only allowed to do one truck. Now they’re not allowed to drive multiple trucks and they’re only allowed to drive on like two to three days a week only now. So they cut down the number of days that they’re allowed to haul, and the number of trucks they are allowed to drive, plus the CHP has been busting them on the road.”
During the stops, CHP is checking the drivers’ logs for the water’s point of origin and where it is going. In the places where enforcement is heaviest and water reserves cut off to growers the earliest, Parker described the situation as something turning into a water war.
“They’re not allowing people to haul water so there have been water wars going out there. It’s been fucking crazy the last few months,” Parker said.