North Coast Water Board Tries to Regulate Elusive Pot Farms

Friday, August 21, 2015

The North Coast Regional Water Control Board sounds like the kind of government agency pot farmers growing in the wild might not want to have much contact with. The feeling is decidedly not mutual.

Last week, the board voted 5-1 to adopt the state’s first environmental regulations for growing marijuana. The region is said to be decimated by large-scale growing operations on public and private land that waste limited water resources, pollute indiscriminately with pesticides and fertilizer, and otherwise abuse the environment.

A lot of these practices were going on for years before the explosion of medical marijuana dispensaries—and the drought—changed the marketplace and the environment. But as the board itself points out, “No one knows (pdf) the true scope of the increased growing activity, because most growers do not register or apply for permits from the various agencies involved in protecting water quality and wildlife.”

Information is so scant that the best the board can produce on its website is a study by California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) of two small watersheds in Humboldt County. Aerial imagery showed the number of acres of marijuana nearly doubled between 2009 and 2012, with 550 growers and 19,000 plants in each watershed.

The new regulations require growers with more than 2,000 square feet to register with the water board or, if they wish to remain anonymous, an approved third party. The regulations that apply depend on which of three tiers the grower is placed in.

The first tier is for low threats. They can self-certify and are subject to inspections. Tier 2 growers need to develop and implement a water resource protection plan. Tier 3 growers have already messed up and have to develop and execute a cleanup and restoration plan.

The regulations include standard conditions for a range of factors: erosion control, stream and wetland buffers, irrigation runoff, fertilizers and pesticides, petroleum products and other waste.

Many of those growers don’t want to be known and no guarantees of anonymity will bring them out in the open. The have, as the Santa Rosa Press Democrat put it, “an ingrained distrust of public authority.” But the board included weasel words they hope will obscure and protect growers from self-incrimination in an activity that is still illegal under federal law.

For instance, the regulations apply to “cannabis cultivation and associated activities or operations with similar environmental effects,” so signing up admits nothing illegal.

The Emerald Growers Association, the self-described “Voice of California’s Cannabis Farmers,” is an enthusiastic advocate of the rules and says it is urging the state’s estimated 53,000 marijuana growers to sign up if the opportunity presents itself.

Still to be determined are penalties for being caught growing pot without being registered and fees for inclusion in the program. The regulation is intended to be a model for other water agencies. The Central Valley water board is expected to take up the issue next month.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

North Coast Water Regulators Adopt Pot Cultivation Rules (by Mary Callahan, Santa Rosa Press Democrat)

Clean Water Demanded from Pot Farms (by Nick Cahill, Courthouse News Service)

Regional Water Board Approves Marijuana Permit (by Kate Maxwell, Ukiah Daily Journal)

North Coast Regional Water Board Adopts Order for Cannabis Cultivation and Similar Activities (California Water Boards) (pdf)


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