Water Theft Connected to Illegal Cannabis Grows

Blog, Highly Relevant / Sep 1, 2021

In California, illegal cannabis grow operations are being blamed for water thefts as the state endures a historic drought year.

As of July, California’s reservoirs were reportedly holding about half as much water as usual for this time of year. Already deep into a severe drought, the circumstances have understandably caused intensified focus and scrutiny on all remaining water sources throughout the state.

And, as a result, water thieves — especially those stealing it for the purpose of supporting unlicensed cannabis grows — are becoming a major problem.

One recent example was found in Los Angeles County’s Antelope Valley. According to authorities, a combination of federal, state, and local law enforcement officers arrested a total of 131 people in connection with a water theft scheme that included tapping into fire hydrants and drilling into unauthorized water wells.

In total, the bust also culminated in the seizure of 33,480 pounds of cannabis as well as dozens of firearms, over 60 cars, and approximately $30,000. At present, 19 individuals from the arrest pool have been officially charged with water theft crimes.

According to a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Agency, the calculated water needs for illegal grows in the Southern California counties of Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino equate to a staggering 5.4 million gallons of water per day, every day.

Sadly, these issues are not limited to the southern half of the state.

July also saw a similar action taken by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office in which they served 23 search warrants over the course of four days with the stated goal of investigating illegal cannabis cultivation in four Humboldt County watersheds.

In Humboldt’s case, the risk to local watersheds and native fish and wildlife has only exacerbated the issue further. According to related scientific studies, said watersheds were losing water flow at an alarming rate, which has repercussions for local humans as well as to protected species like the Coho and Chinook salmon.

Thus, the issue isn’t solely about stopping bad actors but also preventing related negative environmental impacts to the areas in which they operate.

As illegal growers face the wrath of law enforcement, another, similar battle is also being waged: one seeking to clarify the massive disparity in environmental impact between indoor and outdoor grows.

Simply put, we now have a lot of empirical data which proves that growing cannabis indoors is awful for the environment.

One recent reputable study found that emissions associated with growing a single ounce of cannabis indoors is about the same as burning 7 to 16 gallons of gasoline (depending on where in the U.S. it’s grown). Another new reliable report calculated that cannabis cultivated indoors is the most energy intensive and environmentally harmful agricultural product grown in the U.S. today.

But it’s extremely important that we don’t lump greenhouse and outdoor grows in with indoor, as the environmental impact of the former is of a much lower magnitude entirely. For example, UC Berkeley recently unveiled findings that outdoor cannabis farms in California, in comparison to other crops, “consume less water than previously believed.”

Looking at farms across Northern California (including operations in the counties of Humboldt, Trinity, Mendocino and Sonoma), researchers concluded that earlier assumptions about cannabis production and water use was offset by a failure to take into account differences in growing conditions, temporal variation, and water storage.

The same researchers also looked into claims that irrigation for cannabis agriculture threatened streamflows, finding that “legal marijuana production is generally sustainable, given that stored water is used.” The main problem, as reiterated by one of the researchers, is illegal cannabis grows not being held to the same laws and standards as their legal counterparts.

Interestingly, it was tomatoes that were ultimately listed as a comparable crop from a water use standpoint for licensed cannabis cultivators. Thus, while drought conditions will require compromise and creative solutions on all fronts, it is abundantly clear that the big issue is the continued existence of an unregulated cannabis market.

Solutions to the issue beyond clamping down on illegal cultivators include a recommendation that licensed cannabis growers consider building more ponds for long-term water storage.

In Mendocino County, Mendocino Cannabis Alliance Executive Director Michael Katz made the suggestion that more pond building could help during a July meeting of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors during which the findings of UC Berkeley’s researchers were shared.

Having already recently approved an emergency ordinance to allow for the installation of water tanks, Katz pushed Mendocino’s supervisors to consider another ordinance geared at streamlining the process of approving irrigation ponds as well as other storage methods.

Part of the issue here stems from the fact that, as a result of state licensing requirements, licensed cannabis cultivators have their water usage monitored far more closely than those growing other crops With this added scrutiny, it’s only become all the more important to clearly and carefully distinguish who is at fault when discussing cannabis-related water issues and potential solutions.

As further discussion and action on this issue continues, it’s vital that water-related coverage of cannabis distinguishes between those clearly trying to do things the right way and those who simply do not care.

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