A California resident displays his medical marijuana card.     Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Cali Pot Farms Draining Forests Dry

Battle heating up over environmental impact

When California legalized growing marijuana for medical purposes and personal use, it seemed like the good times were ready to roll indefinitely. But now, dispute over the environmental impact of medical pot farms is heating up in in the Golden State. According to wildlife officials, Northern California's forests and streams are being polluted and drained of water by medical marijuana farms that have overstepped their legal bounds and begun growing the substance for retail sale, which is still illegal.

Since Proposition 215 was passed in 1996, officials recorded more and more streams going dry in the region. So, in an attempt to map the damage the farms were doing, California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Bauer used Google mapping technology to track the number of grow operations in the region and how many plants each contained. "We knew people were diverting water for marijuana operations, but we wanted to know exactly how much," Bauer told the AP. "We didn't know they could consume all the water in a stream." Bauer's study estimates that roughly 30,000 pot plants are being grown on each river system in the region, consuming some six gallons of water per plant per day.

The illegal large-scale operations are also introducing unapproved fertilizers to the watershed, potentially affecting salmon, steelhead, and other federally protected wildlife. 

Last year, the problem grew so bad in Lake County, south of Bauer's study area, that officials voted unanimously to place a ban on outdoor grows. "Counties are the ultimate arbiter of land use conflict," said Lake County supervisor Denise Rushing. "So while you have a right to grow marijuana for medicinal use, you don't have a right to impinge on someone else's happiness and well-being."

Pot farmers in the region, feeling that responsible users and growers were being lumped in with criminal operators and that the illegal operations would continue regardless of the law, responded by gathering enough signatures to get a referendum placed on the June 3 ballot, allowing the residents of the county to vote on the issue themselves.

For more on the marijuana-environment clash, read Outside's coverage of how marijuana farms are threatening California's fish.