The Long Thirst
By Linnea Due
Terrain Magazine, Spring 2009
At a meeting in Mendocino County's town of Willits in late October,
what seems a fairly narrow topicillegal water diversion on public
landsrapidly transmogrifies into a frightening evening of dying
fish, dry rivers, and out-of-control toxic algae. On that chilly
night, the event attracts more than a hundred people covered in
fleece outer garments, many wanting to pick a bone with state
regulators. It turns out at least one of the speakers has the same agenda.
Ron Pugh, a US Forest Service special agent in charge of illegal
activities on public lands, has spent the past few years
concentrating on illegal marijuana grows. Marijuana "gardens"a
misnomer on a grand scaleare responsible for the majority of thirsty
straws draining rivers and creeks that cross public lands. Pugh flips
up a slide showing the spread of illegal grows across the nation.
"This, " he says ominously, meaning Mendocino and Humboldt counties,
the crown jewels of US marijuana production, "is not even one of the
In 1995, foreign nationals, mostly Mexicans, began growing marijuana
in Southern California mountains and parks. By '97, grows had spread
into every national park on the West Coast. In 2001, those grows
expanded from California, Oregon, and Washington into Idaho, and now
are spreading like a giant ink stain across the center of the
country's park and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands all the way
to the East Coast.
Says Pugh about the sheer volume of grows, "This is not a hippie
thing." He's come prepared with a list of comparisons between a
"hippie"grow and a DTO siteone maintained by a drug trafficking
organization. A traditional garden on public lands, Pugh says, has
one or two growers and fewer than fifty plants. The gardener, who
lives locally, hikes in every other day or so, carrying water for his
plants. Firearms are uncommon, and locations are predictable.
"They're within a quarter mile of a road," Pugh explains, "and
they're rarely uphill. White guys are lazy."
The DTO sites, on the other hand, are as remote as the growers can
get, often three miles from the nearest road. They contain an average
of 6,600 plants, tended by an average of seven growers who live in
tents the entire season, from May to October. The growers are aided
by scanners, radios, night-vision goggles, an arsenal of weapons, and
truckloads of plastic pipe to divert area streams to their plants,
sometimes from as far as a half-mile away. When they abandon the site
in the fall, they leave behind mountains of trash, about as much
trash as a small city dump.
What they bring in is just as bad. "They smuggle in pesticides from
Mexico," Pugh says, "more potent than you can buy here. And believe
me, they don't care about the creeks." When Pugh describes growers
mixing chemicals directly in the creek to pump onto their plants, a
moan ripples through the audience.
In a later email exchange, Pugh says that he's had trouble getting
people to understand the ramifications of the crisis: "That's why I
go to great effort to point out that we aren't dealing with `just
marijuana,' but a huge environmental issue," Pugh says. "Basically
everyone cares, to some degree or other, about that." Pugh gives his
presentation about twice a month, he says, to spread the word to new
people: "When they become informed,
they become outraged," he says. "And outraged people demand action."
The US Forest Service is not a drug agency, though recently DTO sites
were reclassified as crime scenes, which allows inter-agency
cooperation with local and national law enforcement. The agency can
now sift through trash for phone numbers, receipts, and other tips
that could extend criminal prosecution past the hired help and up to
the drug lords at the top of the chain. Pugh evokes laughs when he
quickly corrects himself while explaining how the combined law
enforcement effort needs to locate Mr. Big"or Ms. Big. Well, I'm
pretty sure it is Mr. Big."
Pugh emphasizes that while the marijuana grows are an enormous drain
on resources both financial and environmental, they are also a huge
safety issueafter all, these are public lands where anyone can hike.
If you stumble on a scene, Pugh advises, retreat immediately and call
for help; during this past season, DTO growers killed two hunters on
BLM land in Humboldt County.
The Forest Service has no funding for cleanup and depends upon
volunteers to help out. Pugh estimates that it takes $5,000 per acre
to remove DTO infrastructure and another $5,000 to restore the site.
"Eradicating these grows is a number-one national priority," he says,
explaining that he's met with state and federal Congressional delegates
frequently over the past two years and that Dianne Feinstein, a
member of the Senate Committee
on the Judiciary, is particularly concerned.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman supplies the local picture,
noting that the county's per capita sales of rat poison are the
highest in the nation; growers buy rat poison by the pallet because
watering the grow sites attracts rodents. This poison ultimately
contaminates the soil and creeks while poisoning raptors and other
animals that eat the dead vermin. DTO growers also routinely shoot wildlife.
Most of all, they consume water. "As you go downstream on the Eel,
the river should grow," says Allman. "Instead, it gets smaller
because people are pumping into storage tanks and directly into
gardens." Allman estimates that 3.6 million pot plants are grown on
public lands"That's 3.6 million gallons of water a day," he says,
"pumped out of our creeks and rivers." Allman pledges to respond to
anonymous GPS reports of pumps and hose: "I'll pull pumps," he
promises. "We'll fly tributaries. I want to see the salmon come back."
Salmon are equal opportunity victims, not just impacted by foreign
nationals growing pot on public lands. As fisheries and watershed
scientist Patrick Higgins points out, many of us are killing the
creeks and rivers by supporting agriculture that relies on illegal
diversions and unpermitted dams. Higgins, from Arcata's Kier
Associates, comes armed with graphs showing the number of illegal
diversions and dams outnumber permitted diversions all along the
North Coast and in Napa and Lake counties.
Higgins recalls fishing in Mendocino County's Outlet Creek during the
'60s, when it was loaded with steelhead. By 1996, because of illegal
drafting, parts of the creek were dry in the summer, stranding fish
in deep poolspools from which diesel pumps lift water daily. Higgins
says there are 1,700 illegal diversions in Marin County alone.
Flyovers show illegal ponds everywhere, for vineyards and other
agricultural uses. The Napa River used to have Coho salmon, the
Navarro is dry, and so is the Gualala. Creeks dry between pools that
often become clogged with algae that grows in the too-warm, too-still
water. When the algae blooms, it releases a nerve toxin that has
poisoned dogs and wildlife.
By email, Higgins sent a chart showing the difference in fish
populations during El Niño and Niña yearspopulations fluctuate
depending upon drought and full water flows. Through drafting and
illegal dams, we've created a couple decades of drought-like
conditions, even though we've actually had wet years like 2005. When
a real drought comes alongas it has nowthe fish are already
stressed and in historically low numbers. "We have a regional
crisis," Higgins says. "There's something called public trust. We all
own the fish, and we all own the water. We've lost public trust in
Higgins has a laundry list of those not "minding the store,"
including the California State Water Resources Control Board: "seldom
seen and completely ineffective," he charges. The water board says
that because of limited resources, its enforcement style is informal.
It tends to respond to violations by issuing retroactive permits for
illegal diversions that may have existed for years: "They send people
a postcard or an email and call it informal enforcement," Higgins
says. He calls for profound reform, including requiring that all
diversions carry a permit and that management of surface and
groundwater be turned over to a state agency with public trust as its
watchword. Illegal dams should be torn out, he says, and unpermitted
diversions penalized by administrative fines of $500 daily. "It's
just a grab," Higgins concludes. "When you disturb landscapes, the
landscape reacts. If you change the nature of a watershed, you change
Greening the Green
By Nicole Edmison
Terrain Magazine, Fall/Winter 2007
Imagine you and your family buy a piece of country property on a
quiet dirt road far from neighbors and highways. One of the selling
points of your parcel was a year-round creek up at the north end;
you've seen mergansers, turtles, and fish on your stretch of the
creek. But one day you notice the taste of gasoline in your drinking water.
You must be mistakenyour well is spring-fed and you had it tested
for mineral and bacterial contamination before you purchased the
property. You test again, and this time the sample indicates serious
diesel contamination. Further investigation leads to a "fake house"
nestled in trees on the other side of the creek. The building looks
like a residence, but it's only home to several hundred marijuana
plants. The diesel tank for the system's generatorsnecessary to
power about forty 1,000-watt lamps, some on eighteen hours a day,
some twelveis leaking gallons of diesel into the soil, the creek,
and the groundwater.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman tells this story about a family
in Piercy. It's becoming more common in the new climate of
large-scale illegal grows, indoors and out. The quiet-seeking family
listened to generators running day and night, smelled diesel exhaust,
and learned more about bad installations than they ever hope to know:
The grower used a polymer tank connected to the generators with PVC
pipe and wire clamp connectors. Neither the tank nor the pipe and
fittings are rated to hold petroleum products. The Hazardous
Materials unit ends up at situations like this, and landowners are
responsible for the clean-up costs. Assuming there is a landowner.
Often grows happen on remote tribal, BLM, or national forest lands,
and taxpayers foot the bill.
According to a 2006 report by Dr. Jon B. Gettman of Shepherd
University, California leads the nation in indoor and outdoor
marijuana production. It is the state's largest cash crop, generating
nearly $14 billion, more than grapes, vegetables, and hay combined.
Moreover, production has increased ten-fold in the last 25 years.
Much of that production takes place in marginal and remote areas,
where ATVs power up hills to tiny outcrops, generators thunder day
and night, and water trucks suck water out of tiny creeks.
Humboldt County supervising environmental health specialist Melissa
Martel says that diesel bioaccumulates in aquatic species and
continues up the food chain. "The coating action of diesel oil can
kill algae, insects, fish and birds," she says. "Studies indicate
that 50 percent of fish will die when exposed to about 1 teaspoon of
diesel in 25 gallons of water."
Diesel setups are so prevalent that Martel gives advice on setting up
safe fuel conveyance systems. "The growers that we investigate aren't
the peace-loving, organic-growing hippies that you might imagine. We
find 100-KW generators with multiple 10,000-gallon diesel storage
tanks sitting on the ground, commonly in a creek drainage with good
riparian coverage, with makeshift piping, hoses, and no seismic
support. Not surprisingly, grows are too frequently discovered by CDF
or local volunteer fire [fighters] when the grow and surrounding
trees are on fire."
Mendocino County fisheries biologist Cynthia LeDoux experiences other
difficulties related to large grows: her own safety is at risk. On a
number of occasions, she has abandoned stream monitoring related to
watershed and fisheries restoration and recovery because of large
grows. Once she and her colleague were removed from a research site
due to a 16,000-plant operation nearby. "Migrants are being
helicoptered in by cartels," she says, referring to Mexican drug
cartels that have recently begun growing in Mendocino, Humboldt,
Trinity, and Lake counties. "The California Department of Fish & Game
doesn't deal with many large-scale grows because of the major
possibility of violence." These dangers extend beyond law enforcement
and game wardens down to biologists and the general public.
Henry Alden, vice president of Walala Redwoods Inc., agrees that
there is "an increasing trend of full-time growers who aren't local
and are more violent." There have been reports from many parts of
Northern California of hikers and equestrians being threatened and
even shot at as a result of stumbling upon a pot plantation. Allman
says, "These large grows are always well off the beaten path. We were
on a helicopter bust of 34,000 plants. There must have been twenty
people living at the site who scattered when the helicopter came.
They lived there all summer, putting all manner of waste into the
soil and water."
The danger extends to wildlife. Allman describes deer, squirrel, and
raccoon carcasses found near grow sites. "The animals are going to go
for the greenest thing around come fall. In this case, it's the
foliage of large marijuana plantations." Growers put out poison or
shoot the animals.
The presence of rats creates another problem. "They'll chew the
stalks of the plants and girdle them," says Allman, so the growers
use poison pellets. "The rat ingests the poison and goes to get a
drink at a nearby stream," Allman says. "Rat poison is activated by
water. The poison kills the animal close by, and when the body
decomposes, 100 percent of the poison is carried directly into the
watershed." Raptors and vultures eating the rats can also be poisoned.
Allman says that a mature pot plant can use up to 15 gallons of water
per day: "If there are 100,000 plants in Mendocino County, then come
fall time, that's 1.5 million gallons of water per day." Often
growers suck water directly from creeks; one observer saw ten rafts
floating in Outlet Creek, which supports several salmon species. Each
raft was equipped with a generator powering a submerged pump
connected to camo-painted pipes extending up a hill to an outdoor grow.
The plantations require high levels of nitrogen fertilizer, often bat
or seabird guano. Enormous numbers of bags of soil are necessary to
fill the pots and grow-bags many growers use; area nurseries sell
soil by the truckload. Allman says, "To avoid suspicion, most of
these bags don't make it to the landfill. They stay at the grow site
along with whatever other waste materials are produced by plantation
caretakers. There should be a California redemption value for soil bags."
Some operations go beyond the careful placement of grow-bags and
pots. "Some bulldoze large areas of land to create a sunny clearing,
often at or near the tops of hills," Allman says. Creeks and rivers
below are flooded with silt once winter rains come. LeDoux has
witnessed first-hand the devastation this can cause to breeding
salmon and other fish. Erosion and contamination combined with
fertilizer-laden runoff and water drafting does not bode well for
fish species in some of Northern California's most remote creeks and
rivers. "The cumulative effect of illegal marijuana cultivation on
fish in these streams is a serious issue," she says. "We need a
think-tank on this whole problem. It needs to be addressed as soon as
Allman wants to clarify one point: "There is a ser-ious distinction
to be made. Many medical [legal] marijuana growers are some of the
most responsible citizens around. They buy soil in bulk, use rat
traps instead of poison, water with timers and drip systems. They
have very little physical impact on the land. I'm not up against
legal growers. The ones I'm concerned with are the ones polluting the
environment in the name of huge profits. The plants are seasonal, but
the environmental damage lasts forever."
Is it time for a Green-Growers stamp or the think-tank LeDoux
proposes? Organic and sustainable growing practices are well suited
to this hardy plant. Cartels, diesel generators, and poisons are not.
Consumers can demand the greening of the green, and move growers in
the direction of environmentally friendly marijuana.