Last week the Tule River Reservation outside of Porterville, California combined with state and federal agencies to conduct a massive raid on four large pot farms on their reservation. The “pot grows”, as they are known in California, were causing the usual array of environmental problems. According to a local paper, “the growers were poaching wildlife, destroying habitat, and polluting land and water.” More seriously, they were using a network of water diversion dams and ten miles of irrigation pipes to fill seven illegal reservoirs, siphoning off up to 100,000 gallons of water a day to feed their thirsty crop. Even without a drought, they were threatening to take 80% of the reservation’s water. (See a 2011 article from Indian Country Today Media Network on their water project.) A similar raid just took place on the Yurok Reservation.
Discussions of pot legalization often ignore the environmental devastation currently being wrecked upon California’s streams by pot farms. Illegal, unregulated, and scattered across hundreds of watersheds, the pot farms divert precious headwater streams while using copious amounts of fertilizer. This deprives important salmon streams of water, raises water temperature, and creates toxic algae blooms that kill fish and even dogs. Endangered coho salmon are most at risk. This paper demonstrates that pot farms are diverting 30% to 100% of water from headwater streams. Many pot farms also use enormous amounts of rat poison which works up the food chain, impacting other wildlife such as the endangered fisher (a large weasel).
Under Proposition 215 in 1996, California allows pot for medical purposes, up to six plants per person. Virtually all of the pot farms in the state are called “215 grows”. They post the names, on laminated sheets of paper tacked to a tree or fence post, of supposed prescription holders, which in total may number more than the population of the state. Greenhouses with grow lights account for 8% of all residential electricity use in the state. It comes as no surprise that much of California’s crop is exported across the nation. The growth of pot farms in California has been tremendous in recent years, as can be readily seen in this Google Earth kmz file, toggling back and forward thru the years. Most are located on hills above the fog belt with access to small streams for water.
While most of these farms are too small to interest federal prosecution, the fact that marijuana is federally illegal creates a number of complicating issues. First, to avoid seizure of their finances, all transactions are in cash, making pot farms attractive to organized crime ranging from Mexican drug cartels to Southeast Asian rebel groups. Large “garden supply centers” in Eureka, California advertise portable greenhouses, irrigation tubing, and urea fertilizer. Some sell cash counters. All that cash requires protection. This, in turn, makes walking in the forest a dangerous proposition. Hikers are often shot at. Second, efforts by state and local agencies to manage, regulate, and inspect pot farms are quashed by federal authorities who threaten them with participating in a federally illegal activity. At the same time, the model pot farmers who are in compliance with local regulations become the first ones targeted by the feds.
With pot now legal in Colorado and Washington, the demand keeps growing. It remains to be seen if federal legalization would result in improved management. Conceivably it would bring pot out of the hills and into larger commercial production where water and pesticide use can be effectively regulated by state and local agencies without fear of federal prosecution. One thing for sure, the current mix of a state-legal/federally-illegal status has led to increased demand, confusion among regulators, and chaos in the hills.
Several California tribes find themselves in the center of this mess. Like the Tule River Tribe, the Hoopa Valley Tribe is taking a strong stand against pot farms. Located in the center of the “Emerald Triangle”, the reservation can practically be seen from outer space based on the absence of pot farms within its boundaries. They are seeking to protect their land, water, and salmon from the destructive impacts of rampant pot farming. Nevertheless, they have had conflicts with local trespassers. Using an alternative strategy, the tribes of the Round Valley Indian Reservation (the Yuki, Pit River, Nomlacki, Concow, Pomo, and Wailacki) have legalized pot farms specifically so that they can manage where it is grown. A few years ago, attorney Gabe Galanda of the Round Valley Reservation discussed the pros and cons of marijuana legalization on Indian Reservations.
Until there are cohesive federal and state policies, tribes in pot country can expect to find their lands (and water) under assault, if not by the feds than by unscrupulous pot farming practices.