Ecological tolls of growing cannabis —both legal and illegal

cannabisA big multi-agency "reclamation" effort on national forest lands in the Emerald Triangle points again to the serious environmental impacts of outlaw cannabis cultivation. Will this be the last gasp of this sort of thing now that California has legalized?

Or will outlaw operations continue, with growers reluctant to enter the legal sector? This debate often overlooks the obvious reality that legal crops also take an ecological toll. Seawater intrusion due to years of breakneck well-drilling now threatens some of California's best farmland. With state ag-biz planning to massively convert from broccoli and cauliflower to cannabis, this is also an issue for the legal industry in the years ahead.

The US Forest Service last week announced completion of a "marijuana grow site reclamation operation" in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Agents cleaned up a big mess apparently left behind by outlaw cannabis growers, including 30 miles of irrigation hose. Helicopters were called in to haul out several thousand pounds of fertilizer and equipment.

The operation was overseen the USFS Law Enforcement and Investigations arm, in conjunction with the Trinity County Sheriff's Office, California National Guard troops, and officers from the North State Marijuana Investigation Team. The effort was also assisted by Integral Ecology Research Center and the Watershed Center, two local environmental organizations. A total of 12 grow sites were identified and "reclaimed" in the operation.

"These grow sites were in remote locations and were difficult to access, making remediation efforts challenging and costly," said USFS Patrol Captain Carson Harris in a press release. "The sites are far from roads, and because they contain toxic pesticides and other hazardous materials, HAZMAT protocols must be followed."

"We used helicopters to air-lift tons of garbage and miles of irrigation piping," Harris added. "The team removed 950 pounds of fertilizer, 30 pounds of hazardous materials including pesticides, 24 propane tanks, 12 car batteries and 31.38 miles of irrigation hose. The total weight of infrastructure removed from the sites was 21,895 pounds."

Concerns about the ecological impacts of outlaw cultivation on Northern California's public lands have been mounting in recent years. Last summer, a study commissioned by the Forest Service brought back the grim findings that contamination from use of pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers had turned thousands of acres into virtual toxic waste dumps. In some cases, contamination of the sites was so severe that simply touching plants had landed law enforcement officers in the hospital.

Bringing cultivation out from the shadows and under public oversight in order to mitigate such impacts was part of the impetus for Proposition 64, which legalized cannabis in the Golden State starting on Jan. 1 of this year. But there is an increasing fear that outlaw cultivation will continue, due to perceived burdensome regulations in the legalized sector. In which case, environmental impacts as well as militarized enforcement could continue on the north country's public lands.

Frequently forgotten in the debate over this question is that legal crops also take an ecological toll. This is becoming a rather inescapable reality in the Salinas and Central valleys, where agri-business now has ambitious plans to bring economies of scale to the legal cannabis market. Recent sobering headlines cast a dubious light on the sustainability of farming practices on the very lands that have for generations been producing much of the nation's vegetables.

A May 14 report on the Water Deeply blog (part of the News Deeply media platform) provides chilling details on the "groundwater emergency" now facing the Salinas Valley. The problem is seawater intrusion into freshwater aquifers, a result of runaway well-drilling. Intensive groundwater pumping has drawn in seawater from Monterey Bay, some 30 miles away. The problem isn't new. Twenty years ago, Monterey County spent some $70 million to build the Castroville Seawater Intrusion Project, which injects recycled wastewater back into the ground to hold back the intrusive brine from the Bay. But this solution hasn't been able to keep pace with continued unregulated well-drilling.

The extent of the problem became apparent last year, when new results from groundwater monitoring were brought in. The county has created a working group of groundwater users and experts to find solutions, but the prospect is daunting.

Water Deeply turned to Gary Petersen, general manager of the Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency and coordinator of the working group, to provide an assessment.

"Well, there are basically three aquifers," Petersen explained, describing what appears to be vicious cycle. "There is the 180-foot aquifer, which has been heavily intruded for a very long time. Underneath that is a 400-foot aquifer, which people have gone to more and more once they hit seawater intrusion in the 180-foot aquifer. Then below that is what is called the deep aquifer. That starts about 800 feet and goes to 2,000 feet..."

And Petersen's ideas for a solution frankly seemed more like a holding action. "First we’ve got to protect the drinking water," he said. "There’s a great Will Rogers quote that I love: 'The first thing you do when you find yourself in a hole is stop digging.' So though we didn’t place limits on well pumping, we recommended a moratorium on any new wells in the 180-foot and 400-foot aquifers until we get the groundwater sustainability plan in place..."  But the plan has yet to be released. 

A case can be made that cannabis conversion is part of the solution here, as it is less water-intensive than many crops now under cultivation in the valley—but not necessarily by much. Industry website The Ganjier has calculated that it requires 4.5 gallons of water to produce a single joint, as compared to five gallons per head of broccoli.  

Clearly, ecological sustainability is an issue the cannabis industry will have to grapple with as it is institutionalized—even if a critical mass of the outlaw growers can be induced to come in from the cold and accept public regulation.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now

Photo by WikiMedia


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