Marijuana plants in forest
Marijuana plants Marijuana plants in the forest © Mark / Creative Commons (Flickr)

Stories in California

Growing Pains

As cannabis cultivation reaches new highs, The Nature Conservancy act to protect the state’s natural resources.

Marijuana cultivation is no longer an underground affair. Nearly half of the country has legalized pot for medicinal purposes, bringing this once-illicit industry into the light. But while California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana 20 years ago, the state is only now putting forward rules to govern how growers produce the controversial crop.

 “Unlike other agricultural industries, which have a significant regulatory process to cultivate and sell their crops, cannabis growers have been hiding in the shadows,” says Jennifer Carah, freshwater ecologist for The Nature Conservancy’s water program.“Due to its quasi-legal status, secrecy has been incentivized and has put state agencies at risk of federal punishment for regulating local production. Additionally, California continues to produce huge levels of illegal marijuana that are exported across the country."


Dry Times

Cannabis was already California’s largest cash crop even before the state voted to legalize recreational marijuana use. The state’s medical marijuana sales hit $2.7 billion in 2015, accounting for nearly half of the legal marijuana purchases in the United States. And the U.S. Department of Justice estimates California produces roughly 60 percent of the illegal marijuana consumed in the United States, a yield worth between $11 billion and $16 billion annually. 

But even in California’s new medical marijuana regulatory system, only a small portion of growers get basic permits for land and water use. And that has led to some serious environmental problems. 

Marijuana growers are often tapping small headwater streams directly in the summer, taking water exactly when fish need that water in the stream the most.

Freshwater Ecologist, The Nature Conservancy

During the height of the growing season, outdoor marijuana cultivation in California consumes roughly 60 million gallons of water a day—50 percent more than is used by all of the residents of San Francisco. Especially in years of severe drought like California has experienced recently, marijuana plantations are draining the life out of some of the state’s most sensitive rivers and watersheds.

“Marijuana growers are often tapping small headwater streams directly in the summer, taking water exactly when fish need that water in the stream the most,” Carah says. “The California Department of Fish and Wildlife recently found that this type of irrigation can significantly reduce or even eliminate stream flow during California’s dry season, particularly during drought years. As cultivation is taking place in some of our most remote, high-conservation-value watersheds, this threatens the survival of endangered salmon, amphibians and other animals that depend on the stream water during that time.”

Marijuana farming is also associated with unpermitted forest clear-cutting and road construction, which can increase erosion, destroy habitat and damage streams. Without the proper oversight, cannabis plantations also pollute the environment and poison wildlife through the use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and petroleum fuels. 

“Chemicals have made their way into the food chain, and those poisons have posed significant risks to predators like the rare Pacific fisher and northern spotted owl,” Carah says.


Hydro Politics

Using scientific research as their foundation, The Nature Conservancy and partners are looking to fill the regulatory gap and protect California’s natural resources. The Conservancy influenced the 2015 Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act, the state’s first serious effort to provide a regulatory framework for medical marijuana, addressing cultivation, transport, storage and distribution. And now they are working with government agencies to develop programs to help implement the new standards. 

The Conservancy also worked with government and other environmental partners on Senate Bill 837, which was signed by Governor Brown in June 2016. This budget measure gives the California State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife authority to build specific water-use guidelines into grower permits. Permits also include water reporting, monitoring and measuring requirements that will help state agencies and nonprofits better understand and address environmental issues.

“We were able to secure strong environmental provisions and mandates for the state agencies to regulate environmental impacts,” says Carah. “Now, to grow medical marijuana legally, growers need to have a water right and a clear water budget that shows where they are getting all of their water for cannabis cultivation. They need to get the necessary permits. So that was a huge win.”

An illegal marijuana farm in the Emerald Triangle in northern California
Marijuana Farm in California An illegal marijuana farm in the Emerald Triangle in northern California © Scott Bauer/DFW

The Nature Conservancy also played a large role in getting environmental protections added to Proposition 64, the recreational marijuana proposal on California ballots this year. The Conservancy helped make sure the bill would provide funding to prevent environmental damage and clean up past damages from marijuana production. 

“We estimate that Prop 64 could generate more than $200 million each year for environmental regulation, remediation and restoration if the act is fully implemented,” Carah says. 

Rolling out these new regulations is helping to bring marijuana in line with the rest of the state’s agricultural sector and recognize the specific environmental damages posed by marijuana production, according to Jay Ziegler, director of external affairs and policy for The Conservancy. “This is a unique industry that is still coming out of the shadows. We need to reach a point where we bring growers along to recognize environmental regulations and wider health and safety requirements. We also need adequate resources for law enforcement to crack down on those outside the system and ensure resources are available to environmental regulation and restoration to make this work.”

A USFS employee cleans up irrigation equipment from illegal marijuana farm
Cleaning up marijuana farm A Forest Service employee is pictured removing marijuana irrigation lines from salmon-bearing headwater streams of the Lassen National Forest. © USFS Region 5