Are Pot Farms Killing Nature?



“A standard of environmental and social responsibility is needed for marijuana agriculture to be compatible with these rural landscapes in the long run,” asserts the final screen shot of The Green Rush Google Earth Tour.

From LOST COAST OUTPOST

The video (above) which was produced by a student and a faculty member associated with the the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research (HIIMR) uses recent and startlingly intimate Google Earth images to probe the growth, scope, and environmental impact of cannabis farms in the Humboldt hills. This video, seen last November on LoCO, is part of a budding movement by scientists and scholars to both study and attempt to influence the agricultural practices of marijuana growers.

Changing technology and changing attitudes in the marijuana growers’ community have recently allowed scientists and scholars to begin studying Humboldt cannabis farms in a way never before possible. Professionals and academics are using the internet as well as traditional media to publish their findings not only to their peers but to the public at large. They hope to influence growers towards more responsible environmental practices.

“We’ve got to get [growers] to start coming in. We want to work with them to conserve water,” explains Scott Bauer of the Department of Fish and Wildlife (Formerly the Dept. of Fish and Game) who recently delved into Google Earth to observe water usage in a single tributary of the South Fork of the Eel River. The watershed is a spawning area for the endangered Coho salmon. Using the well-known online map site as well as other technology, he and fellow state scientists estimated that marijuana growers were likely removing up to 18 million gallons of water per season from this one tributary.

And he thinks that number might be conservative. “I don’t think we are overestimating the amount of water drawn out of the Eel,” worries Bauer. “I think we are underestimating.” He is concerned that without intervention the increasing amount of water used to fuel Humboldt’s cannabis farms could irretrievably weaken certain species. Using both Google Earth and Geographic Information System (GIS) that allows more precise measurements, his group studied a watershed of approximately 23,600 acres. They examined it closely counting each marijuana plant and using the measurements of the greenhouses to estimate plant counts. In that watershed, the group calculated that there were 286 greenhouses, 281 grows and approximately 20,100 marijuana plants.  (That comes out to just under a plant an acre or about 540 marijuana plants per square mile.)

Using estimations of average water usage per plant per day supplied by growers, Bauer’s group then calculated the amount of water that those plants would use— a whopping 18 million gallons of water per season. And, he said that because of Google Earth, they had the ability to check closely for water storage situations.  Bauer said, “There were very few ponds and tanks out there.” So in order to keep marijuana plants alive and thriving during the hot summer months, water was likely pumped directly from tributaries to the Eel—diminishing streams and creeks and endangering wildlife.

The numbers given above are just estimations but Bauer says they are necessary for his department’s long term goal of developing a “water budget” for each watershed. They hope to figure out average flows in each waterway during the late summer months. Then they hope to figure out how much is necessary to maintain water health and allow fish populations, etc. to thrive. From that they will be able to derive numbers on how much water can be withdrawn from each watershed.

To Bauer, the amount of water withdrawn isn’t the only concern.  He says,

…what concerns me the most about people diverting water illegally for marijuana is not so much the total amount over the course of a growing season …but how it is diverted.  If there are 300 growers in a watershed and 150 of them all kick on their water pumps first thing in the morning and the cumulative impact is to dry up sections of stream, well then, it’s game over for the fish and other aquatic life.  I’ve seen one pump in a stream turned on and have no discernible effect at the point of diversion, yet 800 feet downstream a long section of riffle was dewatered, killing a half dozen steelhead.

He is also concerned about how grading causes sediment runoff. Among other problems, sediment can destroy spawning areas, kill bottom dwelling organisms, and injure fish. He says that government agencies have been working for years and spending millions of dollars to “fix the old logging areas and my hunch is that we’ll be doing that with marijuana grows in the future….We’re spending millions to fix these old roads. I have this feeling that in the future we’ll be spending millions to fix the marijuana grows.”

Anthony Silvaggio, Ph.D, who is a faculty member of the Humboldt State University Sociology Department and associated with the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research (HIIMR), is also worried about the effect of grows on the environment.  This is why the Green Rush video (see above) was created. He explains that the Green Rush video is

…simply exploratory research, with the intent to produce a visual to educate the public and those concerned with environmental protection about the distribution and magnitude of marijuana agriculture in the county.  As a researcher who has visited numerous sites that have been degraded by industrial marijuana agriculture, it is our job to produce work that informs people about the impacts of the industry, and to help cultivate community awareness around the issue of ecological harms. As an environmentalist, one goal is to help design [best management practices] for the industry.

Both Silvaggio and Bauer have used the newest updates on Google Earth to examine the amount and effects of marijuana growing in specific areas.  The Green Rush video stitched together Google Earth photos showing the extent of growing in an area. One of the most dramatic scenes shows an aerial view of Humboldt County with a rash of red spots tossed across a small chunk of land in the southwest section.  Each of those red spots represents a grow and, according to a caption on the video, there are over 600 grows in the area shown. According to Silvaggio, some of the red dots could represent grows as small as 50 to 100 plants but most are larger. He says,

The majority of the grows represented are 100 plus plant grows, which most insiders (growers, law enforcement, etc.) say is the general minimum for this classification of industrial….After a rigorous inventory of the site, we are very confident that the overwhelming majority of the sites represented industrial grows.

The effects of even smaller grows can add up, Silvaggio explains.

…[T]his is a question of cumulative impacts.  In additional to the impacts of industrial grows,  we more than likely have over a 1000 small scenes that could have water, topsoil, forest cover, fish, and erosion impacts.

Some people, however argue that marijuana industry is being unfairly targeted. First of all they say that many, if not most, growers utilize good environmental practices. The blog, One Good Year, makes a very effective argument that Humboldt has a

long-established community of responsible growers…who are community-oriented and environmentally responsible; who farm organically and improve the private land they’re living and farming on; who don’t use poisons; and who store water (with or without a permit) in the winter for use during the dry months instead of sucking it from dwindling creek flows.

Furthermore, some argue that lumber companies and vineyards are the cause of much more damage to the environment than marijuana farms. For instance, one comment on the LoCO says,

every single green diamond clearcut kills more than just the trees involved. You could fit the surface area of every illicit grow into a couple green diamond clearcuts, and green diamond clearcuts by the thousands.

Bauer, on the other hand, argues that there are regulations in place to deal with the lumber and wine companies but more importantly,”Water diversions are water diversions, whether they are for grapes or marijuana.”

Silvaggio is much more forceful. He says,

Its not either-or. To put it frankly, a salmon really does not give a shit if it’s a logging company or a grower spewing pesticides and silt into its home.  Both cause environmental damage and kill fish.  It is really harmful to environmental restoration efforts to say  “let’s just ignore the eco-impacts that the marijuana industry has on critters.”

It is known that in some watersheds timber companies are contributing to environmental damage more than growers… [Which is causing the most damage] depends so many things – the watershed, the type of logging going on now, the level of damage past logging has already done to the watershed and the type, and scale of growing…

As an environmental sociologist, I know that state supported industrial logging practices devastated and continue to harm ecosystems and timber communities. This is not deniable…

However, he says,

One point we want to make is that the timber industry has a spectrum of regulated practices, and even though they are and have been insufficient in protecting critter and ecosystem, there are regs they must abide by and inspections, etc.

…The bottom line is that right now we have an already impaired ecosystem, one that people are putting immense energy and resources into helping rehabilitate, and this is getting further exploited by yet another unregulated, environmentally exploitative industry—industrial scale pot farmers.

According to Silvaggio, growers (and other rural residents) can reduce their impacts by calculating their water usage, creating a water budget, and maintaining water storage.  (See detailed information here or here.)

Silvaggio also suggests,

  • if you are going to grade or clear land, get a permit.
  • do not use pesticides
  • hire a certified forester to cut your trees
  • talk to Dept. of Fish and Wildlife about water diversion and storage
  • reading this article which provides more information on what practices to avoid

He adds that growing indoor is not the solution. “Indoor cannabis,” Silvaggio says, “is not better for the environment, as it requires fossil fuels and other inputs that leave a huge ecological footprint both locally and globally.”

Silvaggio isn’t absolutely anti marijuana growing. He believes that

Growing marijuana may actually be a legitimate compatible use for some of the logged over tanoak forest.  The question is what are the best management practices of the marijuana industry.

However he says, “as an enviro sociologist, I wish growers would spend just a fraction of the time (and money) they spend on researching their plant nutrients, strain types, big trucks, etc,  and devote that fraction of time to researching eco-friendly cultivation practices.  The fish and forest would appreciate it.”
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See also the comments at the original post here
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