California water supply takes hit from marijuana

In California by Shauna Sherard

920x1240 Brian blog

Photo: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

By Brian Johnson, Curtis Knight and Mike Sweeney
Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle

California, the nation’s top agricultural producer, also is the source of up to 70 percent of the marijuana consumed in the United States. The marijuana industry is largely unregulated and there are few protections to ensure illegal water diversions for grows don’t dry up rivers and destroy salmon and steelhead habitat. As the state begins to debate whether to legalize recreational marijuana, these concerns are amplified. With or without legalization, California needs to grapple with the environmental consequences of this enormous industry.

The longer the drought, the greater the tension among the demands for water for agricultural crops, urban water and the need for cold clean water for fisheries. Almonds bring in upward of $6.4 billion annually. Dairy products and wine grapes inject $6.9 billion and $3 billion, respectively, into our state economy. The economic value of these industries pales compared to medical and black market marijuana sales, which together amount to $16 billion.

Marijuana is a thirsty crop, typically grown off the beaten path on private property and illegally on public lands. And it is often grown in the most sensitive watersheds with significant wildlife habitat. Along the North Coast, it takes twice as much water to grow one marijuana plant as it takes to grow one wine grapevine. Water for these plantations often is taken illegally. Such diversions can significantly reduce stream flow during California’s dry season, particularly during drought. Stretches of the Eel River and many of its tributaries have slowed to a trickle or dried up completely as a result of water diversions during the dry season when young fish are struggling to survive.

Shasta County landowner Mark Hazarian told us, “On our little creek, we have federal- and state-listed species like steelhead trout and Shasta salamander, and they have been dying because of water diversion for marijuana cultivation. All the alder trees are dying, which is ironic as the spring that feeds our creek is called Alder Spring. Neighbors say that water has run down this creek in the summer since they arrived in 1948. And now it’s dry. Everyone who lives on the creek is so depressed. Legal water users don’t have enough water because of all the water poaching.”

Marijuana’s semi-legal status makes this industry’s water usage challenging to regulate. Stream-flow protections and adequate funding to enforce them are essential to ensure legalization does not escalate detrimental environmental effects and push our wild salmon and trout rapidly toward extinction.

The state is just beginning to address the effects of marijuana production. For the first time, the state has allocated limited funding to enforce environmental laws around marijuana production. The first piece of legislation to address extensive environmental damage caused by cannabis cultivation is working its way through the Legislature. Unfortunately, the clandestine nature and sheer number of marijuana gardens, combined with insufficient enforcement, have allowed this industry and its detrimental environmental effects to flourish under the radar. Resources allocated are insufficient to meet the need.

The recently released Blue Ribbon Commission report on policy options for regulating marijuana in California includes important recommendations, and we urge their adoption into any potential legalization framework. State agencies need sufficient resources to bring marijuana farmers into compliance with existing state environmental laws. They also must begin the process of reversing the extensive environmental damage caused by this booming industry, including developing new policies to regulate water rights in a region where thousands of independent water diversions are having devastating cumulative effects on rivers and streams.

Adequate funding is essential. Should recreational marijuana be legalized in California, a portion of associated revenues (e.g. taxes, fees, penalties) should be dedicated to preventing environmental effects and restoring land and waters degraded from cultivation.

California has limited water supplies available to support agriculture, residential and commercial uses, and wildlife. We must bring marijuana production into the conversation about how best to allocate this precious resource.

Brian Johnson is California state director for Trout Unlimited. Curtis Knight is executive director of nonprofit fish and watershed advocacy organization California Trout. Mike Sweeney is executive director of the Nature Conservancy in California. To comment, submit your letter to the editor at