With California voters poised to pass a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana use in November, the farmers supplying 758,607 residents holding medical marijuana prescriptions will now be subject to the state’s stringent agricultural water use laws.
No one knows just how big the unregulated marijuana cultivation industry is in California, but it is notorious for drying up Northern California streams, starving endangered fish, contributing to erosion, and spoiling water quality with massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides.
Now, with Gov. Jerry Brown signing SB 837 on June 27, marijuana growers are required to obtain state irrigation water permits.
California Fish and Wildlife Department used sophisticated satellite imagery of three key watersheds in the “Emerald Triangle” of Mendocino County, Humboldt County, and Trinity County in 2014 to try to develop agricultural statistics from the heart of California marijuana cultivation. They found that pot cultivation has doubled since 2009, and that each of the three watersheds contain an average of 30,000 pot plants each.
Researchers estimate that each marijuana plant in the area consumes about 6 gallons of water a day. That means that Emerald Triangle marijuana production siphons off 540,000 gallons of water per day. That is enough water to fill 480 Olympic-sized swimming pools during each day of the 150-day growing cycle for outdoor plants.
A big environmental issue associated with the marijuana is the industry’s involvement in year-round production — including the winter, when water is usually plentiful, and the summer when water is often scarce.
SB 837 is a “budget trailer bill” that provides a litany of new operating requirements associated with the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA), which was signed into law by Brown last October. The MMRSA established the initial comprehensive oversight authority to regulate legal cannabis growing in California.
The “California Growers Association,” which claims to represent the largest cannabis growers in the state, says that the industry is “ready to be part of the mainstream,” according to Executive Director Hezekiah Allen. He adds, “What we are trying to do is move people into the regulated class. Lots absolutely want that legitimacy.”
The 4-year California drought brought rage from environmentalists due to widespread damages caused by unregulated marijuana growing. Jay Ziegler, director of external affairs and policy for the Nature Conservancy, which supported the passage of SB 837, told KQED television that it is “a really significant breakthrough” to bring California’s largest cash crop under regulatory oversight.
The regulations are a statewide follow-up to the California State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Fish pilot programs that began last year. A joint task force will expand their efforts to assess environmental damages from marijuana growing, such as assessing sustainable streamflow needs in watersheds where marijuana is cultivated, to serve as a baseline to guide grower water diversion issuance.
Under SB 837, the task force is now authorized to collect grower fees and penalties to pay for oversight and to correct damage. But even if growers have so-called “riparian” water rights — meaning a right to divert water from a creek that flows on or adjacent to their land — they will not be allowed to cut into the baseline flow that sustains wildlife.
The oversight regulations will, however, allow growers with verified riparian water rights to build water storage, such as ponds or tanks, to collect and store water when streams are flush during winter months.