Last month, local officials in Northern California took a major enforcement action against cannabis growers for their environmentally unsound water practices, in a case that crystalizes some of the dilemmas facing the Golden State’s newly legal cash-crop sector and its interactions with the water supply.
The current dilemmas boil down to this: As the state punishes cannabis growers in the Emerald Triangle for environmental degradation, it is simultaneously pursuing an aqueduct project in the Central Valley that environmental groups claim will cause ecological harm of massive proportions. This project stands to benefit the “big ag” industry, which California’s newly legal cannabis companies are increasingly participating in.
Irresponsible Growers: A Threat to Salmon
On Feb. 19, a couple in Shasta County was slapped with a $150,000 fine for building an earthen dam on their property to facilitate their cannabis grow. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board issued the fine against Kongkeo Khamvongsa and Alexandra Kensavath, who had previously been issued a clean-up and abatement order in June 2016. At a February hearing, the Regional Board determined that the couple failed to restore and maintain their property after inspectors found evidence of water-quality problems related to the “development of the property for cannabis cultivation.” Specifically, this meant grading 2.6 acres and constructing an earthen dam without obtaining permits.
The board found that these activities resulted in the potential discharge of waste into several streams on the property that are tributary to Fidler Creek and North Fork Cottonwood Creek, which ultimately join the Sacramento River. Both creeks provide salmon habitat. In addition to the fine, Khamvongsa and Kensavath were ordered to clean up the property.
“State and Regional Water Board staff and legal counsel, in conjunction with their colleagues at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, have gone to great lengths to hold Mr. Khamvongsa and Ms. Kensavath accountable for their actions,” said Clint Snyder, assistant executive officer for the Central Valley Water Board, in a state press release.
The water board also announced they had issued a fine of $83,187 to Teng Vang of Sacramento for similar offenses at a grow site on another Shasta County property, the Sacramento Bee reports. Vang had similarly been notified nearly two years ago by inspectors of water quality problems at his site, including grading and building of stream crossings and access roads without the necessary permits — similarly resulting in sediment discharges. These discharges posed a risk to tributaries of North Fork Cottonwood Creek and Ducket Creek, which both support salmon, according to the Regional Board.
Department of Water Resources: A Bigger Threat to Salmon?
Ironically, the enforcement action in Shasta County came within days of the announcement by California’s new Gov. Gavin Newsom of his plan to revive the controversial multi-billion dollar “Twin Tunnels” project, which would divert water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the Central Valley and Southern California, for both agribusiness and municipal use.
The mega-project had been dealt a setback in December, when the California Department of Water Resources withdrew its petition seeking approval of the plan, which had been developed by outgoing governor Jerry Brown. Newsom now says he wants to downsize the project in response to environmental concerns, possibly limiting it to one tunnel.
Formally known as California Waterfix, the project is actually being pushed as an environmental remediation measure, intended in part to reduce the impacts that massive pumps at the south end of the Delta currently have on Delta hydrology and ecosystems.
But the state’s environmentalists aren’t sold — to say the least. The California Water Impact Network states: “By any objective analysis, the Twin Tunnels pose a dire threat to the Delta’s fisheries. The project would shunt high-quality Sacramento River water under the Delta to the south, leaving the estuary with disproportionate flows of heavily polluted water from the San Joaquin River. These reduced flows and higher contaminant levels of pesticides, herbicides, arsenic, selenium and boron bode ill for the salmon, steelhead and numerous other species important to our commercial and recreational fisheries.”
The statement notes that the San Joaquin is already designated as an “impaired water body” by the State Water Resources Control Board and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and asserts that “the Twin Tunnels will only make this already bad situation worse.”
Reducing flows into the Delta could also cause saltwater from San Francisco Bay to intrude eastward, resulting in increased salinity and posing a further threat to salmon and other imperiled fish species.
Nor are ecologists appeased by Newsom’s downsizing of the project. Writes environmental journalist Dan Bacher in Daily Kos: “The California Waterfix project, whether one or two tunnels, would divert water from the Sacramento River under the Delta to the state and federal water export facilities in the South Delta. The project would hasten the extinction of Sacramento River winter and spring-run Chinook salmon, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species, as well as imperil salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity and Klamath rivers.”
The Klamath and its tributary the Trinity are two of the major rivers that drain Northern California’s cannabis-growing Emerald Triangle, joining in Humboldt County to meet the Pacific. They’re already degraded by mining and dams, as well as irresponsible marijuana cultivation practices. Since water is diverted from the Trinity through a tunnel across the mountains to the Sacramento, the Twin Tunnels could ultimately reduce flows on the Trinity and Klamath.
Small Growers to Lose?
Cannabis — while still lagging behind rice, cotton and cattle — has a growing presence among Central Valley beneficiaries of the water diversion project. The small operations that were fined in Shasta County are also in the Central Valley, although on its northeast edge, just across the Coast Range from the Emerald Triangle and arguably within it. But it is the Valley’s sprawling agribusiness holdings now being converted to cannabis that stand to share in the mammoth water-diversion infrastructure run by the Department of Water Resources and federal Bureau of Reclamation.
In October 2017, in anticipation of legalization taking effect the following New Year’s Day, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted a state-wide “cannabis cultivation policy.” The newly-established Water Boards Cannabis Cultivation Program aims to mitigate impacts of discharges from the new industry “to the greatest extent possible,” a phrase that may imply more laxity for Big Bud than for the little guys.
It may also appear ominous that these controversies come as Gov. Newsom has announced plans to send the state’s National Guard north to join in the crackdown on unlicensed cannabis growers, pulling them out of enforcement along the Mexican border. Newsom said troops will be “redeploying up north to go after all these illegal cannabis farms, many of which are run by the cartels that are devastating our pristine forests and increasingly themselves becoming fire hazards.”
There are indeed serious ecological tolls taken by cannabis cultivation, whether legal or illegal. But if there is a double standard in enforcement, it could become a tool to establish the power of agribusiness over the industry, and help push out the mom-and-pop competitors — even if not wittingly.
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