State Water Board Comments on Sproul Creek Inspection

Article published on February 19, 2015 by Willits News
By: Adrian Baumann
Read online at Willits Nets

Plans for the multi-agency task force, including the California Water Board and Department of Fish and Wildlife, aiming to regulate marijuana growing in the state continue to evolve.

The task force conducted January inspections of marijuana grows on Sproul Creek in southern Humboldt County.

The group is still refining its approach to regulating and mitigating the environmental damages caused by extensive marijuana cultivation across the North Coast.

In response to questions about the possibility of large fines Director of the Office of Enforcement Cris Carrigan pointed to the co-operative nature of the task force, and again stressed the desire of the Water Board to work with growers to come up to speed on regulations.

But an attorney for the Water Board stated that along with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) the board has the authority to levy fines of 10s of thousands of dollars per day for sedimentation, and not only property owners but contractors could be held liable.

Activists and members of environmental agencies stressed the urgency of the current situation for fish on the North Coast, warning the status quo may likely lead to extinction of local species.

Scott Greacen, executive director of the Friends of the Eel River, said, “I think Sproul Creek really is a really important story for the whole watershed…that stream is supposed to be the foundation on which we’re hoping to recover Coho salmon not just in Sproul Creek and Redwood Creek, but across the South Fork [Eel River].”

Greacen elaborated that because Coho run on a fairly rigid three year cycle, the loss of a whole “year class” means the creek will have no runs in three year intervals. And both Greacen and Senior Attorney with the Office of Enforcement of the State Water Board Yvonne West, who was present for the Sproul Creek inspections, stated that it’s possible another run will be lost this year.

West explained her role was to help coordinate the multi-agency task force, which drew personnel from Fish and Wildlife, the State Water Board and Regional Water Quality Control Board, Humboldt County Environmental Health, and Humboldt County Sheriffs Office. But she was also there to, as she said, “Make sure that everybody understood what the confines of the warrant were and what they could and couldn’t do under the warrant.”

In other words the Water Board wanted to focus on violations of environmental rather than criminal laws. But West acknowledged that this was a tricky balance, saying of the sheriffs, “There could be a point when it changes from our job to their job, but that’s not why we’re going out there.” Elaborating that, “And I would like to think that that the community understands that there are certain elements out that there that if we ran into them we wouldn’t want to be without law enforcement.”

The inspections proceeded under warrants from county judges. Importantly the warrants were issued for suspected water code and fish and game code violations, not for criminal violations. The inspections were conducted by three teams of about a dozen people, with roughly half being scientists or administrators from environmental agencies, and half being law enforcement, either game wardens or Humboldt sheriff’s deputies.

As West described them the sites ranged from backyard garden type grows, to properties that probably had thousands of plants growing over tens of acres.

However it was not always clear to whom each site belonged, said West, “My sense after the experience was that there was a wide continuum on the scale, there were some properties that were clearly being sharecropped, that were multiple leases, with multiple gardens across the property.” However, West described the majority of property owners as, “Cooperative and helpful.”

Among offenses that she observed were fuel canisters tipped over near streams, pesticides and fertilizers without proper protection, and the largest culprit, road construction, ranging from improper grading, to poorly placed culverts, that contribute hugely to sedimentation in streams. Said West, “Right now we have an industry that’s semi-legitimate but is still kind of hiding in the woods so we have a lot of growing on steep terrains.”

Adding that proper erosion control was essentially absent and that, “When people were in there doing forestry…they were expected to follow a set of standards.”

Here she pointed out that contractors performing grading are, “as liable as the property owners and we do intend to hold them jointly and severally liable.”

Though she sympathized with these contractors, saying she understood that marijuana is a huge part of the local economy, she said that as licensed contractors they had to be aware of proper erosion controls.

Greacen for his part believes that the cumulative effects of many small farmers are contributing more than they would like to believe. Said Greacen, “There’s a story we tell ourselves around here that we all mean well and we’re good stewards and that it’s just a few bad apples that are causing the real problems buts that’s not true, it’s the small things that everybody does that are adding up to extinction.”

Adding, “That’s not to say that there are not those awful atrocious actors…but that fixing those things doesn’t solve the problem at all.”

Casey O’Neill, Mendocino chair for the Emerald Growers Association, responded saying, “As a farmer, and son of Mendocino County, this is not something we can solve by pointing fingers, we need to work together to achieve best management practices and honor the past to build shared futures.”

Adding, “I think there’s been a sort of movement from the environmental community to try to take people off the land—and I don’t think that’s realistic. I think we should figure out how to avoid the little things that add up to the big things so we can all live in healthy happy communities.”

As an activist for the Eel River Greacen expressed happiness at the new efforts of governmental agencies to bring regulation to bear, but also stressed that the magnitude of the problem exceeds the resources available to fight it, “I know that CDFW looked at the scale of the problem and said they needed 30 positions and they got two.”