Politics & Government

California water officials to inspect marijuana farms

California water quality regulators will soon begin inspecting illegal marijuana growing operations in the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada, reversing an earlier ban intended to protect employees.

At a meeting Friday in Rancho Cordova, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board directed staff to begin cooperating with other agencies to inspect marijuana grows, which have emerged as a major source of environmental damage in many rural counties.

The board and its staff are charged with protecting streams and groundwater in the state’s vast interior, a region encompassing 37 counties and 40 percent of California’s land area. It also includes the western flank of the Sierra Nevada, a sparsely populated and rugged region favored by marijuana growers.

“The environmental impacts are significant,” said Pamela Creedon, the water board’s executive officer. “If we don’t get some kind of control over this, we’re going to have some serious damage being done.”

Marijuana growers encompass a spectrum of individuals, from gravely ill cancer patients growing their own small supply of medicinal marijuana under the legal authority of California’s Proposition 215 to undocumented immigrants working on behalf of violent multinational drug cartels.

To protect its employees from the latter type of grower, the water board until now has been reluctant to allow its pollution experts to join law enforcement officials in the field to inspect marijuana growing of any sort. Officials cited risks that include deadly booby traps, armed guards and potential health hazards in some growing operations.

The result was that state wildlife officers and county sheriffs have been unable to call on pollution experts during inspections. And a sordid array of environmental crimes has often gone unprosecuted, from illegal road grading to pollution from herbicides, pesticides and human waste.

That will now change. In addition to conducting inspections during law enforcement visits to marijuana farms, the water board will lay down civil penalties against property owners who break pollution laws, said Clint Snyder, assistant executive officer for the board in its Redding office.

In other words, marijuana growers for the first time will be treated just like other farmers and industries that pollute water and habitats in the course of doing business.

Snyder said inspections likely would begin “within the next month or so.” The staff also will begin working on new regulations for the marijuana industry. For example, this would require law-abiding growers to control crop drainage, similar to requirements imposed on traditional farming for decades.

The board will start slowly by focusing first on Shasta and Butte counties, Snyder said. It will expand later to include its offices in Rancho Cordova and Fresno. The board will ask employees to volunteer for the duty, rather than making assignments.

“Safety is our No. 1 concern for our staff,” Snyder said. “There are a number of staff who are really interested in conducting these inspections.”

Many marijuana growers work not to harm the environment. But others cause damage that extends beyond their own cultivation site, affecting wildlife and water quality across a vast area. This often includes so-called “collectives,” which combine many Proposition 215 growing permits into a large cultivating operation.

The lack of regulation is such that state officials have no clear idea how many marijuana farms – legal or illegal – exist in California. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is using aerial photography in an effort to find out. At Friday’s meeting, it presented startling images that showed the proliferation of small marijuana farms in the Sierra foothills. Most appear as small clear-cuts where trees and other plants were stripped over several acres to make way for marijuana.

Near the town of Whitmore in Shasta County, north of Shingletown, images showed how an area about a quarter-mile square exploded from zero marijuana farms in June 2009 to nine growing operations two years later.

The new direction by the water board follows months of meetings by a task force that included the water board, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, county sheriff’s offices and other agencies. It was prompted in part by complaints from Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Loma Rica, who represents part of Butte County.

“The reason I pursued this with the water quality control board is that when local governments take action against these grows, they need all the evidence they can get in order to get a conviction,” Logue said. “I’m happy they are moving forward on this.”

Proposition 215 legalized marijuana growing in California for medicinal purposes in 1996. But ensuring cultivation complies with other state laws has been difficult, because marijuana is still a controlled substance under federal law. In several cases, when rural counties moved to regulate the industry, they were threatened with criminal prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Such threats eased in August, when the Obama administration directed U.S. attorneys in all 50 states not to challenge state laws legalizing marijuana. Instead, the directive told them to focus on a short list of criminal activities, such as preventing marijuana cultivation on public land and keeping marijuana away from minors and drug cartels.

Some growers welcome additional state involvement in policing the industry. They view it as another step to legitimacy, said Robert MacKenzie, attorney for the Western Plant Science Association, a group based in Chico that supports medical marijuana growers.

“We want to try to turn this around so that we are treated as agriculture,” MacKenzie said. “We know there are cartels operating in national forests that are using toxic chemicals. But that’s not us. The industry, for the most part, are good people who are good stewards of the land just like other farmers.”