Dan Morain

The Conversation: Environment is going to pot

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

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In a state that prides itself on its environmentalist sensibilities, emboldened marijuana growers have ripped out ponderosa pines and bulldozed deep terraces into steep slopes above Lake Oroville, all so their crops can receive full sun.

In an earlier era, 49ers with visions of riches used powerful water cannons to tear apart mountains in search of precious metal. The story hasn't changed much in a century and a half, except now the gold is green.

Growers don't obtain permits and take no steps to limit erosion. Although they probably are breaking law governing discharges, California Regional Water Quality Control Board officials shy away from inspecting the farms, fearing for their safety.

Because many growers display notes from doctors swearing that they're cultivating the marijuana for medicinal purposes, Butte County law enforcement officials don't have power to make arrests.

"Where's the Sierra Club when you need it?" asked Assemblyman Dan Logue, a Republican whose district includes Lake Oroville. To which Kathryn Phillips of the Sierra Club answered that the state should assert its role.

Not someone to be mistaken for John Muir, Logue led the effort a few years back to roll back AB 32, the measure to limit greenhouse gas. Cagey politician that he is, Logue also knows an issue when he sees it.

"There are chemicals and fertilizers being used," he said. "It is like strip mining of 150 years ago. If it isn't mitigated now, there will be no end to it."

On a hot afternoon last week, Logue and Butte County Sheriff Jerry Smith brought me to two of the many pot farms in the mountains east of Oroville to illustrate the latest bad impact of California's failed marijuana regulation.

Scores of marijuana plants grew in fabric containers filled with rich top soil on newly carved terraces. Wells had been dug and water pumped to large tanks, where it was mixed with nitrate fertilizer and piped to the plants.

Farmers, nowhere to be seen, left behind doctors' certificates saying the marijuana was being grown for medicinal purposes, as authorized by Proposition 215, the 1996 initiative that legalized medical marijuana.

On one farm, the 215 authorization identified the "patient" as Gilbert Benitez Jr. Butte County property records show Benitez has a Florida address; he didn't return my call.

Although some politicians, Logue included, lament that California is losing jobs to low-tax states, Smith said many entrepreneurs in the cash-only business come from Florida and Texas, which cannot match our growing conditions and haven't legalized medical marijuana.

Marijuana cultivation is hardly new to Butte County. But there has been an astonishing increase this year. Smith and other officials attribute it to Butte County's attempt to restrict pot farms in 2011.

The marijuana industry answered by spending $123,000 on a referendum campaign in June 2012, a tidy sum in a county with 121,000 registered voters.

The campaign slogan was "Let granny grow," as if the issue was elderly people with conditions that can be helped by smoking marijuana. Voters bought into the pitch in a landslide, probably not realizing that the likely result will be actual landslides when the rain comes because of grading.

Rick Tognoli, of Tognoli Trucking and Grading out of Chico, was one of three official sponsors of the referendum. He's a grower who also trucks high-grade top soil to growers throughout Butte County, and estimates his business is up 10 percent this year.

Tognoli sits on the board of the Western Plant Science Association, which he likened to the rice farmers' trade group, only for pot growers. The goal is to establish best practices.

"Respect neighbors and don't raise dust and don't play loud music," he said.

What about ripping out vegetation and piling slash that could explode into flames at the slightest spark, so marijuana growers can make a killing?

"Nobody can tell people what they can do with their land," he said. "This is America. I can do what I want with my land."

He said landowners should limit erosion by throwing down straw wattles and spreading grass seed. But the county "is making a mountain out of a molehill" by making an issue of the grading.

The denuded land that I visited was above Lake Oroville, an important part of the State Water Project. Gravity being what it is, chemicals used on the weed to make it grow like weeds will flow downhill once the rain comes, as will the powdery red soil that no longer is held in place by brush and trees.

Butte County has established a task force to confront the problem, but officials there say they have limited power authority. They have placed stop-orders at some operations that failed to obtain proper permits. Butte County sued seven landowners two weeks ago, accusing them of excavating 9,400 cubic yards of dirt from various mountainsides. But sheriff's deputies don't make arrests if growers have a 215 certificate.

In May, Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly sought to enlist the aid of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has the power to levy fines for water discharge violations.

Citing the huge sums of money involved in marijuana operations and the lawlessness, Pamela Creedon, the water board's executive director, was not anxious to join the campaign.

"As you may know," she wrote, "our enforcement staff are not peace officers and as such do not have the requisite training to deal with the myriad potential issues related to site visits to these operations. We simply cannot, in good conscience, put staff in harm's way."

Creedon said in an interview that Butte County growers likely are violating water laws. Certainly, the board has hammered farmers of more traditional crops, including levying a $300,000 penalty on a Stanislaus County almond grower who fouled water by illegally grading his land.

But water board inspectors brandish clipboards, not firearms. An order that pot growers pay to clean up their messes won't have much impact if they don't obey other laws, Creedon said.

Logue has seized on the response, asking: "Why are we letting them continue to damage our water quality, when strict guidelines are placed on the farmers across the state, like the timber industry and grape growers?"

He told Creedon the National Guard or Butte County sheriff's deputies could accompany water inspectors. He bravely offered: "If need be, I am also willing to join your staff to go to the site and help them navigate through the county."

No doubt, marijuana growers would quake at the sight of a California assemblyman, albeit a slightly out of shape one who became winded while walking up the hills to the pot farms the other day.

Logue has a point, however. The Legislature should act, and not in a way that expands the marijuana industry. In the coming weeks, the Legislature will focus on bills that are supposedly intended to regulate pot dispensaries but that in fact would further legitimize the business.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, are carrying the measures. Logue will vote against them.

Environmentalists give Steinberg and Ammiano A-plus ratings. Unlike Logue, they support everything green. But before they begin the final push on their bills, Ammiano and Steinberg should spend an afternoon with Logue, and see firsthand the degradation caused by the kush rush.

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