A Carrot and Stick for Pot Farmers 

The state water board has launched an unprecedented program that seeks to work cooperatively with cannabis growers, but other government agencies just want to raid farms and seize cash.

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These perverse incentives have, in turn, resulted in an explosion of pesticide use, especially by growers who trespass on private or public land to cultivate black-market weed; more illegal water diversions from creeks and streams to irrigate pot grows; and more erosion caused by hillside farming and road-grading.


The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (one of nine such boards statewide) regulates and monitors a host of water-related issues, from the quality of municipal drinking water to the quality of sewage plant discharge, and importantly for the North Coast, the quality of the water flowing in streams and rivers. For years, however, the board had been underfunded, understaffed, and unable to contend with problems caused by the proliferation of environmentally damaging pot grows.

But last year's state budget set aside $3.3 million for the regional board, the state water board, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to begin tackling the problem. The North Coast board has hired several new people, including the two reps who attended the Grange Hall meeting in Laytonville. And board officials have been hammering out their main regulatory tool: the "waiver of discharge," a document that will establish a new set of industry specific rules.

The new regs include a tiered system of compliance, with spot-checks and substantial fines in cases of non-compliance, but also a grace period and a path for existing farms to gradually come into compliance. The board will inspect farms and rank them on the basis of potential or existing environmental harm. Farmers have to pay a fee to enroll in the program, and the amount they pay is dependent on the danger and severity of the operation. Growers also must promise to make certain improvements to their land.

The new system also includes a role for third-party inspections, and a cottage industry has already sprung up here, with hundreds of growers hiring watershed consultants to help them work through the bureaucracy and science of environmental compliance.

At the Laytonville meeting, several growers asked why they were being held to a higher standard than other forms of agriculture, especially vineyards. Water board officials have responded by saying that a similar plan is being developed for the wine industry, and that the regulations for pot farmers were indicative of a new way of attempting to regulate several industries situated in delicate environments.

"We should not be more onerous than we are to the grape growers," said John Corbett, chair of the North Coast board. "There's two parts to equity: one, the growers comply with the water quality laws. The second part is those laws are the same for them as for other people."

And overall, at least from politically organized groups of marijuana farmers, such as the Emerald Growers Association (EGA), and smaller county groups, including California Cannabis Voice Humboldt (CCVH) and Mendocino Cannabis Policy Council, support for the water board's program has been positive. "The water board staff are our preferred regulators because they don't carry guns and badges," explained O'Neill of the EGA.

But will any of this work? While many growers, especially those who have taken great care to safeguard the environment, are hopeful, some environmentalists are not so sure. Scott Greacen, executive director of the environmental group Friends of the Eel River, said he's broadly supportive of the water board's initiative, but it appears to be too little, too late.

He points out that many growers have not even enrolled in the water board's existing programs. And while the board has found some enthusiastic adopters of its new program, the industry is huge and unwieldy. Plus, even if the board achieves higher enrollment over time, some fish species might go extinct in only two or three years, he said. So while a system made up of farms run by people like O'Neill might be sustainable, such a scenario doesn't seem likely at this point. Greacen believes that environmental cleanup needs to happen faster and that the system needs to better distinguish between good farms and bad ones. "We need a really bright line," he said. "We need to be able to tell law enforcement, 'This is what's okay, and anything bigger than that, go nail them.'"

Earlier this year, there was an indication that local and state agencies might join the water board's cooperative approach. A task force of water board inspectors, Fish and Wildlife game wardens, local law enforcement, and other functionaries collaborated on organized inspections in the watershed of Sproul Creek in southern Humboldt County. The inspections uncovered a variety of violations, and water board officials dispatched letters demanding enrollment in the board's new program and compliance.

Then on July 20, at a community theater in Garberville, the various government agencies held a forum where, in good patriotic American style, the public came to yell at the government. There had been some major problems with the Sproul inspections, claims of uninformed staff, sloppy reporting, and rights violations. Perhaps the biggest issue was that the water board's map software had marked local property lines wrong, sometimes a third of a mile off from the real property line.

On the other hand, as the representatives of the various agencies pointed out, this was a starting point. No one expected to go from no regulations to a thorough regulatory framework without growing pains.

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