Marijuana cultivation’s impacts on our rivers
Chris and James stand on the lawn behind Indian Creek Resort, stomping their feet against the cold while passing a joint back and forth. Recreational pot has been legal in California since January 2019, so the two aren’t breaking any laws. Tomorrow the three of us will be rafting a wild stretch of the Trinity River, flyfishing for its famous native steelhead. I’m a newcomer to this trip, but regardless of how recently any laws were changed, the act of smoking marijuana seems well practiced here in Northern Cal, as does the art of cultivating it. But things are changing rapidly since the passage of CA Prop 64. And for the surging waters of the Trinity—and hundreds of rivers like it across the country—that change may be coming too fast for them to keep up.
As with any form of agriculture, cannabis cultivation requires certain inputs, and creates certain outputs—some desirable, some less so. When it comes to our fisheries, it really boils down to water and waste: what gets pumped out of the rivers, and what gets washed back in once that THC is ripe. Until 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, all cultivation was illegal in the US. “Regulation” meant a team of law enforcement agents raiding your grow site, with weapons and arrest warrants. Few growers concerned themselves with environmental best-practices. Most pumped water directly from streams year-round, cut and graded crude clearings and roadways, and applied fertilizers and pesticides in harmful ways.
Legalization was supposed to help, with regulation and enforcement funded by taxing the end product. But much of that tax revenue ends up going elsewhere. Many also hoped it would coax illicit growers out of the hills, away from our rivers, and into compliance. But so far, evidence shows that the environmental impact of cannabis cultivation has only worsened in the first few years of this kinder, danker world. It may fall on us—the end consumer—to hold this booming new industry accountable. Every other form of agriculture in the US has multiple federal agencies monitoring its activities. But, for now at least, the federal government can’t lift a pencil to help state agencies enforce these new state laws.
The enforcement shortage is partly due to US law prohibiting the transport of restricted substances across state lines, since cannabis is still officially listed as a Schedule I controlled substance by the feds—the same designation as heroin, ecstasy, and LSD. Moving weed across a border, even between two neighboring legal states like California to Oregon, is a federal crime. In short: States must grow their own. Thirty-three states, plus the District of Columbia, have now passed laws legalizing cannabis for certain uses, including 11 states where it’s fully legal, beginning with Colorado and Washington in 2012. As the march of legalization continues, each new weed-friendly state is faced with the challenges of regulating its own production, then enforcing those regulations without the aid of federal agencies. Many bucket-list destinations for anglers now lie within states struggling to catch up with legalization, and with the environmental issues that come with it.
“You’ve got these huge federal agencies on the sidelines who would be able to help—a century’s worth of consumer and environmental protections—but they can’t have anything to do with this,” says Ben Cort, author of the 2017 book, Weed, Inc.: The Truth About the Pot Lobby, THC, and the Commercial Marijuana Industry. (Cort is also a flyfisher and former guide, currently living in Boulder, CO.) With the Feds unable to assist, and state agencies spread thin, a handful of guides, state officials, and conservation organizations have been sounding the alarm, trying to bring awareness to this issue. It’s not as simple as being pro- or anti-legalization. It’s about how the laws are implemented and enforced.
Which brings us to the hazy-eyed elephant in the room: it’s just not cool to question legalization. A lot of people have been waiting years—even decades—for the prohibition of weed to be lifted. Many are anglers who would normally be watchdogs for our fisheries, decrying harmful agricultural practices. But when it comes to cannabis, a lot of us seem a little blinded. “There’s something about this subject that keeps intelligent, thinking people from… intelligence and thinking,” Cort says. “Marijuana is just so uncool to question.”
THE EMERALD TRIANGLE
In the early 1970s a handful of veterans returning from Vietnam made their way into the hills of California’s Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties, looking for a quiet place to lay low and treat their PTSD with a little bit of home-grown. Today, this region is known as The Emerald Triangle, and it’s the undisputed epicenter of marijuana cultivation in the US. It’s also ground zero in the battle between steelhead and sativa.
Sometimes referred to as the “Napa Valley of weed,” the Emerald Triangle is known for the high-quality product it produces. But, contrary to stoner lore, it wasn’t the climate that first brought cannabis growers to these hills. It was the remote, inaccessible terrain. They wanted to be hard to find. They wanted to be left alone. “It’s rugged country. Little drainages in the middle of nowhere,” says Matt Clifford, staff attorney for Trout Unlimited’s California Water Project. “It’s a really good place to get away from the cops and grow pot. But for salmon and steelhead, it’s the worst place you could possibly do it.”
The region has a Mediterranean climate, with steady rainfall throughout the winter but almost none in the summer. From May to October the small feeder streams where salmon and steelhead rear become extremely vulnerable. “It doesn’t take much to dry them up,” Clifford says. From the ’70s until the early ’90s, small-scale growers hid in these valleys and cultivated their crops, without much regard for fish. Some were relatively harmless, others were dangerous— both to trespassers and to the local fisheries. But for the most part, the environmental footprint of cannabis wasn’t catastrophic. Then came something called Compassionate Use.
“There have been cannabis farmers here for decades, and they were probably diverting water from streams that support salmon and steelhead,” says Darren Mierau, North Coast Director for CalTrout. “But the medical marijuana bill opened the door for the expansion of [illicit] cannabis production in this region. It was like, they now had permission to do it.”
California Proposition 215, the “Compassionate Use Act,” passed in 1996 with more than 55 percent of California voters supporting medical marijuana. It was the first bill of its kind to pass in the US, and it marked the beginning of California’s “Green Rush,” an unprecedented increase in cultivation, and not just by licensed growers. According to the US Forest Service, the number of illegal-grow sites in California increased dramatically in the years after Prop 215. The state’s regulatory agencies, and its rivers, weren’t prepared for it.
“The new guys came in, and they were really profitoriented,” says Mierau. “They set diesel pumps down in the stream channels. All it takes is an hour of pumping to de-water a stream and kill all of the fish.”
These weren’t old hippies from the ’70s, just growing a secret stash for themselves and a few of their friends. “You basically had this whole new culture that didn’t know about the place, had no connection to the river, and had nothing to do with the fish,” says Shane Anderson, director of the 2017 documentary, A River’s Last Chance, which told the story of California’s Eel River and the fight to save its native runs of salmon and steelhead. “They were just there to grow six months a year.”
IT MAY FALL ON US—THE END CONSUMER—TO HOLD THIS BOOMING NEW INDUSTRY ACCOUNTABLE.
Anderson didn’t originally intend for his film to be focussed so much on cannabis. “It was going to be more of a good-news story,” he says, “because the runs were doing well down there, and the fishing was so much better than in Washington and Oregon. I was inspired, at first, to tell a story of a wild run that had recovered on its own.”
But that was before 2014, when Anderson visited the Eel with steelhead guide and fellow filmmaker Jason Hartwick. “The river literally ran dry,” Anderson recalls. “We started digging into it, and that’s when the narrative switched.”
Anderson studied fisheries biology, and has also spent time working on many of his friends’ cannabis farms. He’s personally seen both sides of this issue. “When I lived there a lot of my friends grew, and for a long time it was all small farms, pretty low-impact,” he says. “But after that first legalization attempt, that started the frenzy.”
Scott Bauer works as a Senior Environmental Scientist Supervisor with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), putting him on the front lines of the water and weed battle. “The Klamath River might be 70 degrees in the summer, but the streams they’re taking most of the water from are little tributaries that are 50 degrees,” Bauer says. “You’re talking cold water refugia for salmon and steelhead, and they’re taking that. These illegal sites, they just throw a pipe in the stream and take what they want.”
A mature cannabis plant consumes somewhere between two and five liters of water per day— roughly the same as an adult human. If there are five thousand plants in one of these small drainages, that’s the water-usage equivalent of five thousand people—more than double the capacity of the Humboldt State basketball arena. Officials also find dangerous pesticides being applied to the soil, thousands of pounds of trash, and poorly constructed roads, culverts, and hillside terraces washing sediment into streams. Algae growth from chemical fertilizer runoff is also a major concern. Local guides say they can tell when they’re below a grow site based on the huge blooms of algae that form downstream, reducing oxygen in the water, covering spawning gravel, and harming aquatic insects.
As state environmental agencies scrambled to catch up, the march of legalization continued— from medicinal to decriminalized to recreational. From California, north through the Pacific Northwest and into Alaska, then east to the mountain states, the Midwest, and the Northeast. Legalization was meant to solve these problems: Take production out of the hands of criminals and give it to responsible growers, then tax the sale of marijuana to fund its regulation and enforcement. It all seemed so simple.
But, at least in the short-term, the opposite has proved true. In state after state, legalization has only emboldened illicit growers. What was once a major drug crime is now more like tax evasion, or the lack of a permit. In addition, the higher costs (permits, taxes, and regulatory compliance) are keeping many growers from going legit. “People are staying in the black market because they think they can continue to get away with it,” says Mierau. “And because it’s cheaper.”
Even with permitted sites, it’s a challenge for understaffed state agencies to keep everyone in line. “We still have issues with compliance,” says Bauer. “We go out and they haven’t fixed that bad road-crossing yet. Or that culvert we told them to fix a year ago, which is washing sediment into creeks. We have streams that we’ve been concerned about that are still going dry. Our fish are really having a hard go of it. It’s been hard to keep optimistic.”
Our guides on the Trinity are the Kennedy brothers, Greg and Kris, based in Redding. Every day they see the direct effects of cannabis cultivation on their fisheries, from a guide’s-eye view. “With legalization, we thought a lot of this was going to disappear,” says Kris. “But in some of these valleys at night, every canyon, every drainage, is glowing with greenhouses. Where there were ten people growing in the ’90s there are thousands now.”
The issue is a topic of conversation in their boats almost daily. “A lot of our clients don’t understand the scope of the whole operation,” Kris says. “Some of these sites are right next to the river, within feet. You can literally float down the river and see them. On certain floats we’ll pass three or four of them.
Dr. Mourad Gabriel is the co-director of California’s Integral Ecology Research Center. For the past eight years he’s spent much of his time in the field, doing site cleanups and data collection on illicit grows. Since 2012, Dr. Gabriel says, they’ve seen a significant escalation in grow sites, plant counts, and—alarmingly—chemical usage. Carbofuran is a toxic pesticide that is currently banned for agricultural use in the United States—and banned for all uses in Canada and the European Union. It’s considered dangerous to humans and extremely detrimental to wildlife, including aquatic invertebrates and fish. “Back in 2012 we were finding Carbofuran in about 13 percent of grow sites that we visited,” says Dr. Gabriel. “Now we’re at 85 to 90 percent.”
In 2018, Dr. Gabriel’s team cleaned up 86 illegal sites. But by some law enforcement estimates there are more than 1,000 new sites every year— just on California’s public land. And that pattern is repeating itself across the country, often in dangerous proximity to fisheries.
In 2017, more than 71,000 plants were removed from illegal sites on public land in Colorado, where marijuana has been legal for nearly eight years. In Michigan, where weed became legal this year, officials still find illicit sites in state and national forests. In Tennessee, illegal grow sites are regularly found in the Daniel Boone and Cherokee national forests—often in remote drainages that are home to native brook trout. Weed is illegal in Tennessee, but data from the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (AHIDTA) shows that seizures of marijuana originating in Tennessee have increased by nearly 80 percent since 2015. By the AHIDTA’s estimation, those numbers are “likely a result of the national situation surrounding prosecution, or lack thereof.”
IS ‘BIG AG’ BETTER?
Watchdog groups like Trout Unlimited and CalTrout argue that many states put the cart before the horse in the push for legalization. They enacted policies before building their enforcement capabilities or regulatory branches. Now, as cultivation—both legal and illicit—skyrockets, the states are trying to catch up.
“I was bummed when the legalization process went through [in California],” says George Revel, owner of Lost Coast Outfitters fly shop, in San Francisco. “I would’ve liked to have seen them take it out of the hills and bring it into the valley, where we can control the water. Do I want to see more agriculture in California? Not really. But at least they know how to use water efficiently. They’re used to growing things.”
But others would argue that industrial farms and greenhouses come with their own issues. In addition to their larger carbon footprint, there’s still the issue of water. Jason Atkinson is a former Oregon state legislator, an avid angler, and one of the producers of the 2015 film, A River Between Us, documenting the restoration of the Klamath, in Southern Oregon and Northern California. “When it became legal in Oregon, places that never had agriculture all of the sudden were green with pot farms—big ones,” Atkinson says. “There’s one farm over from me that has 300 employees, and the ground they’re growing on is non-irrigated. It doesn’t have water rights. So where do they get their water? If you were to go steelheading with me today, from my house to the river is 20 minutes, and we’d go by 30 pot farms—all in places that don’t have irrigation.”
While illicit growers may pose the most immediate threat to our fisheries, larger interests like Big Agriculture, Big Pharma, and Big Tobacco, don’t exactly have a history of trust with anglers and environmentalists. They’re already spending big, and profiting bigger. Colorado had twentyeight full-time lobbyists for the cannabis industry in 2016. And according to Cort’s data, in 2017, $9.8 billion worth of cannabis was taxed in North America. “In that same period of time, we taxed $3.5 billion worth of milk,” Cort says. “This isn’t mom-and-pop stuff. This is Monsanto- and Walmart- and Nestle-level stuff. These are huge corporate interests.”
Back on the Trinity, with Kris on the oars, James lands a beautiful wild steelhead, and lights up on a gravel bar in celebration. Our guides still have faith that, in the long run, legalization will help, and that effective oversight and enforcement can only be good for our fisheries. That seems to be the consensus, among both experts and anglers. But the cannabis industry—even in its inebriated state—is still moving faster than state governments.
“The state agencies are stepping up regulatory programs, and a lot of those could be quite good,” says Mierau. “But it’s going to take time. They haven’t gotten the response that I think they’d expected or hoped to get in terms of compliance.”
Lately, there have been signs that the green boom is busting. With prices on the decline, many growers are giving up. Real estate prices for cultivation sites in Northern California have plummeted, in some areas by as much as 60 percent compared to just two years ago. “When I moved there in 2006, weed was wholesaling from the farms for… $2,800–$3,200 a pound,” Anderson estimates. “When I left it was down to around $1,000–$1,500. And I’d heard it had dropped to $300–$500. It’s gotten to the point where, unless you go really, really big, you can’t even make your money back. And they’ve increased their crackdown. It’s not worth the risk anymore.”
States are also busy drafting regulations that allow for responsible, legal cultivation with minimal impact on the environment. They’re adding staff and ramping up enforcement. There’s optimism that, once we get it right, fish and weed can live together in harmony. “I think cannabis is an important part of the region,” Anderson adds. “I want to see the sustainable players survive. Those people were never the problem.”
But until regulations and enforcement catch up with legislation, our fisheries need us to ask questions and demand better. They need us—as anglers and consumers—to acknowledge that there’s a price being paid for these high times.