The Current

Accidental Activists

Amid the worst drought in California’s history, does the fate of the state’s salmon rest on weeding out the illegal marijuana farms?

New marijuana farms in California could mean the extinction of the state's salmon.     Photo: sssss1gmel/Getty Images

In his one-room cabin in the hills of southern Humboldt County, Utpara Deva is giving a slideshow on his computer. A former photographer, Deva moved to this rural area in 1996 to get away from the hustle of city life in San Francisco. He peers over his reading glasses, scanning through the photos from last summer. These aren’t like the epic black-and-white landscapes he once printed as an assistant for Ansel Adams. The subject here is more urgent.

“This is in late July, and the creek is still running,” he says. “So pay attention to what it looks like.” The photo shows the glistening surface of nearby Mattole Canyon Creek, filled with thousands of tiny steelhead. Some are the size of sardines; others are bigger, up to eight inches long.

“Uh-oh,” he says, clicking to the next photo. In it, a one-inch black PVC pipe snakes out of a gas-powered water pump and into the creek. Increasingly, Deva says, marijuana farms are diverting water in the summer to irrigate their crops, wrecking habitats and killing the fish. The creek pictured here feeds into the Mattole River, home to some of California’s last steelhead and cohos.

“Fish and Wildlife had a tip about the pump for more than a month—it makes you crazy,” he says. To try and save the fish from the rapidly shrinking creek, he and several neighbors began scooping up steelhead in five-gallon buckets and carrying them to the river below. Over time, the creek turned to pools, then eventually dried up completely. Deva and his neighbors were able to save a few hundred fish out of the thousands that wound up either being eaten by raccoons and kingfishers or starving to death.

For years, the water used by thousands of marijuana farms has been creating a problem for California’s endangered cohos and threatened steelhead. Now, with the worst drought in the state’s history, pot farms are poised to push these species over the edge. During the summer of 2013, two dozen fish-bearing streams in the area dried up. There were reports of people stealing water from fire hydrants and filling up water trucks right out of the rivers. In July, at the peak of summer, 10,000 gallons of water were stolen from a school cistern in the small town of Weott, just off Highway 101. Any hope for California’s salmon and steelhead was quickly disappearing—and, suddenly, residents, marine biologists, and marijuana growers found their worlds colliding. 


Highway 101 winds north from Deva’s cabin, past California’s untouched Lost Coast, through ancient redwood groves until, 70 miles later, it reaches Eureka. Here, the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s local office is filled with hunting licenses, tide table books, and fishing guides.

Scott Bauer, an environmental scientist with the agency, is at his desk. Forty-one years old, he has close-cropped hair and a graying goatee. Nearby are two clear plastic containers the size of 35mm film canisters. Inside both are a few tiny cohos and steelhead in formaldehyde, bent in half like pickled vegetables in a too-small jar. He found them at a stream where water diversions were so bad the fish starved to death in the warm, stagnant pools. Bauer’s work focuses on salmon recovery projects—but, these days, his nickname is “the marijuana man,” a title that makes him wince. Pot farms have been exploding here in recent years, and marijuana issues now take up nearly all his time.

“I knew people grew dope, but it wasn’t talked about,” Bauer says, recalling when he started with Fish and Wildlife in 2005. A few years later, while flying over Humboldt in a small plane, he saw the countless greenhouses and gardens carved into the mountainsides. The scale of growing sank in, he says. Since then, the farms have only gotten bigger. According to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, there are approximately 4,100 outdoor marijuana farms in the county. And these are the obvious ones, the ones visible from above. The undetectable indoor operations remain uncounted.

“It’s like that moment when you look at one of those computer pictures, crossing your eyes—and suddenly everything shows up,” Bauer says. “You start looking around, and that’s all you see.”

In the summertime, he gets frequent calls from landowners about the streams on their property drying up. He works with legislators in Sacramento about the issue, and he accompanies the Humboldt County Drug Task Force on private-land busts. Because it’s his job to make people keep water in the streams, he says he’s not welcome in many of the small communities where marijuana farming is a way of life—the same places he needs to have the most impact.

“You can’t have fish without water,” he says.


The Department of Fish and Wildlife is spending $12 million annually on fish-habitat restoration in Northern California, and that money is disappearing as quickly as the state’s water. But if these creeks dry up for three or four years in a row, it will all be for nothing. There will be no generations of fish to return; the runs will be dead.

Simultaneously, Humboldt County is ground zero for marijuana farming, California’s biggest cash crop, but not because of good soil or the right amount of rain. The real reasons that make Humboldt so good for growing pot, according to Deva, are bad roads, rugged terrain, and a poor county with underfunded law enforcement. “Humboldt County was made for black-market growing,” he says.

In 2010, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that as much as 79 percent of the nation’s marijuana comes from California; that number includes both illegal operations and licensed medical ones. The handful of game wardens and sheriffs in Humboldt County currently busts less than one percent of the illegal growing operations in the hills. With legalization likely in the next few years and little threat of arrest, marijuana farmers have been scaling up while the price is still high, putting more and more pressure on rural watersheds.

Bauer witnessed what happened at Mattole Canyon Creek, near Deva’s cabin. The grower who was eventually arrested had 877 small plants. This, Deva says, is on the smaller side for many farms. But there were numerous other growers upstream, all taking water from the same place. As Mattole Canyon Creek was drained into puddles, juvenile steelhead were sucked into the uncovered pipe as it carried water into the woods.

“We don’t care what you’re growing,” Bauer says, “We could give a hoot. We care about the critters in the streams.”

It’s impossible to know exactly how much water is being drawn from streams for marijuana farms because, by its very nature, the industry is unregulated. Estimates for how much a plant consumes in a day vary from three to six gallons, depending on size, how they’re grown, and whether you ask Fish and Wildlife or a grower. But with farms increasing at unprecedented rates in past years, many residents believe marijuana is the biggest factor threatening Humboldt’s watersheds. If Fish and Wildlife’s estimates are accurate, there are 30,000 marijuana plants in each of four Humboldt and neighboring Mendocino watersheds known for their prolific number of grows. Multiply that by the high end of the watering scale—six gallons a day—and, as noted by Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat, that’s “altogether more than 160 Olympic-size swimming pools over the average 150-day growing cycle for outdoor plants.”

According to data from the National Weather Service, during the past three years, Humboldt had basically average rainfall. But residents say that, even during those years, the creeks started drying up, which suggests that California’s drought is not the main factor.

“It’s as if everybody around here lived in spotted owl habitat, or marbled murrelet habitat,” says Dana Stolzman, executive director of Southern Humboldt’s Salmonid Restoration Federation. She explains that the availability of salmon at the local grocery store makes it hard for people to accept that they’re endangered in places like this. “Everybody here lives in endangered coho habitat.”

Unlike most people, the majority of rural residents in southern Humboldt County get their water from springs—groundwater that wells up and flows to the surface; the same water that combines to form the area’s streams. Except in a few small towns, there’s no city water system. Wells are rare because they can draw unwanted permitting attention. So whether they’re doing laundry or growing a thousand marijuana plants, both the original homesteaders and the new “pot miner” generation, which came largely to grow marijuana, are fully responsible for obtaining their own water.

The fact that growers aren’t the only ones using the water is something Kristin Nevedal is quick to point out. “This isn’t a cannabis issue, it’s an issue that’s being exacerbated by cannabis,” she says, using the plant’s scientific name. Nevedal is the executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, a policy group that advocates for marijuana legalization and medical use. And she has a point. No matter what people are using water for, there are more residents here than there used to be. Marijuana farmers, she says, are easy targets. Some families in Humboldt are now in their third generation of pot growing. For many, it’s a stable income in a beautiful setting. For some, it’s the only way they know to make a living. The question has become one of whether growers are willing to put the survival of steelhead and cohos before their own livelihood.


Leaving his cabin, Deva climbs into his truck, puts it in four-wheel drive, and heads down a rutted-dirt road. At the crest of a hill, he comes to a stop. There, in a clearing of madrones, is a silver silo. Its walls and roof are of corrugated steel, and it stands about 35 feet wide. The cone-shaped top is open, to collect rainwater.

“This is basically a model grow site,” Deva says. The structure is a 47,000-gallon rain-harvesting tank. One of his neighbors, a grower, is in the process of building it. From there, he scrambles down the hillside, and through a carpet of oak leaves, to another curiosity: what look like two giant, sand-colored water beds. They’re military surplus, he says, explaining that they would have been used for storing liquids like jet fuel in Afghanistan. But here, they hold 20,000 gallons of water each, pumped in during the winter, when streams are usually running high. Deva explains that this growing operation, which gets a hundred percent of its water from rain during wet winters, has “zero impact on the fish.”

He continues down the hill to a meadow that overlooks the sweeping mountains of the King Range. Before him are three long, raised garden beds that together contain about a hundred marijuana plants. The buds were recently harvested, so all that’s left are yellowing, four-foot-high stalks. This operation produces about 50 pounds of marijuana, which, Deva says, translate to around $60,000 a year. But environmentally minded growers like these ones, who make every effort to minimize their footprint in this fragile ecosystem by using water storage, installing elaborate drip systems, and taking water only during the winter, remain under the radar due to fears of getting caught out by the law.

In the watersheds of southern Humboldt County, where unregulated agriculture and, now, drought are threatening a species on their way to extinction, the future is hard to predict. It won’t take much for the coho to go the way of California’s grizzly bear, a relic of the past, and the steelhead aren’t far behind. According to Fish and Wildlife’s Scott Bauer, three cohos were counted in the Mattole River last year. “That is essentially extirpated—extinct,” he says, going on to speculate that, if every resident and grower started storing water, it might be enough to save these watersheds and their fish.

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