Fish and Wildlife, Water Board, inspect marijuana grows, possible fines

Article published February 12, 2015 by Willits News
By: Adrian Baumann
Read online at Willits News

A coalition of state and local government agencies, led by the State Water Board and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife inspected 15 marijuana farms in January along Sproul Creek in Humboldt County. The inspection tour was authorized by a pilot program aiming to curb the environmental impacts of marijuana cultivation.

Sproul Creek is a tributary of the South Fork of the Eel River. The three days of inspections began Jan. 21 along the creek which runs about five miles west of Highway 101 near Richardson Grove. The group had targeted 14 properties but an additional property owner requested to be included at the last minute. The properties ranged from 40 to 100 acres and although there were no giant grows identified, most seemed to have a plant count in the hundreds.

According to Scott Bauer, a staff environmental scientist at CDFW operating out of Eureka, CDFW fielded three environmental scientists and six to eight game wardens depending on the day. There were also personnel on the inspections from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the agency in charge of water quality; the State Water Board’s Division of Water Rights, meant to inspect for illegal diversions; Humboldt County’s Environmental Health Department and Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office.

“We found lots of water diversion, lots of sediment issues; and what was kind of a big concern for us, was how the fish habitat was being affected,¨ said Bauer. He noted that Sproul Creek was chosen for the high density of marijuana grows, because it went dry in the summer of 2014, and because it is home to five endangered salmonid species.

Bauer described the main sources of problems as grading and road construction, although fertilizers and poorly maintained diesel tanks were also identified as problems.

Unauthorized water diversions were also rampant. Bauer noted, “People were okay with us being there, and a lot of people frankly gave us consent to check out their property.” He said that of the 15 properties most had at least one violation.

As is often the case when various state and local agencies collaborate, the goals and messages of the groups not necessarily aligned. While the Water Board had previously emphasized a gradual phase-in that would not result in fines initially, Bauer indicated that the newly empowered CDFW might be assessing fines much sooner.

According to Bauer, under a law signed by Governor Jerry Brown last June, SB-861, Fish and Wildlife no longer has to enlist county district attorneys in prosecuting violations, and can instead levy fines directly. Said Bauer, “An important thing for us was to try and get people into compliance and one of those tools now is that there are substantial fines if you’re violating fish and game code.”

Under the new law an illegal water diversion could cost up to $8,000 per day; the presence of trash, including plastic tubing, could result in a $20,000 fine; and water pollution, which ranges from sedimentation to diesel fuel, can be fined at up to $20,000 per day.

How fiercely the CDFW will use their new powers Bauer admits that they have not yet made that decision, saying, “There are sites that need to be cleaned up immediately; and if we go into another dry year we need people to get into compliance with laws before we lose another year of our fish run.” Adding, “Our intent is not to make examples of people but it’s just another tool that we have to try and achieve compliance.”

He also noted that CDFW will be acting independently of the Water Board, saying, “They have their own way of how they’re going to approach this, and ours may be different…we want people to come into compliance with existing law, but if there are egregious things taking place we may see it necessary to pursue those in a more immediate fashion.”

But he did strike a positive note about the cooperation of local growers, “People appear to be willing to work with us and try and fix those problems.” Adding, “I did experience that, [people saying], ‘How can I make this more environmentally sound,’ and that was amazing to hear, people being receptive to making their operations as green as possible and we hope to work with those people.”

Though The Willits News could not contact anyone inspected directly, Luke Bruner, business Manager at Wonderland Nursery, said that he’d spoken with two workers who had been at farms that were inspected and an additional grower who’d asked Fish and Wildlife to come check out his farm.

Said Bruner, “I was told by folks that live in the area that it wasn’t all that bad. But, all the folks I talked with didn’t have any problems that required significant attention. One of them invited the water board team onto their property and everything was fine. Their water was permitted, they weren’t drawing from the stream, they didn’t have toxic runoff. It’s what we all know to be true—a couple bad apples are spoiling the bunch. Most farmers are doing a pretty good job, and are pretty environmentally friendly. We don’t farm the way the Central Valley corporate types farm. Up here, we take care of nature.”