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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To the layperson, the environmental problems caused by bad growing practices can be subtle —innocuous storage ponds or culverts. But to Bauer, they represent impending catastrophes. 

"The fuse is lit, and come a big El Niño, these things are going to unravel and end up in the Eel River. And that's my best explanation ... ticking time bombs across the landscape," he said. "People abandon them and they become a mess and somebody's got to pay for them, that's going to need to happen, because some of these sites probably can't wait two or three or four years to be cleaned up."

However, after police raids, after the plants have been cut down and arrests made, these sites are typically left orphaned, with no solution in sight. And so they, too, remain environmental time bombs across the landscape.

After many miles of paved, then gravel, then dirt road, I came to a locked gate. I parked to figure out my next move, when who should drive up from the other side of the gate but a convoy of Mendocino sheriff's deputies. They did a good job of pretending I was invisible before shooing me away. I didn't have a key to get through the gate, and it was miles farther down the road to where the action was, so I headed home.

It's notable that all of these skirmishes between the cops and the growers happen far from cities and towns, far from cameras and any kind of accountability. What information people do get here consists mostly of rumors spread by excitable growers and the official accounts of law-enforcement departments that have huge reputational and budgetary incentives to juke the stats.

The political representatives for the growers made it widely known that raids — a business-as-usual approach — would have a chilling effect on the efforts by activists, environmentalists, and water board reps to enroll growers in the new program. In a missive sent out to the EGA mailing list, Hezekiah Allen, director of the organization, summed up the feelings of many in the community. "Today they say they are looking for 'environmental impacts,' and 'water theft.' But these new words ring hollow. Because this is the same type of activity that traumatized me and the children of our community at an early age. ... The environmental impacts are very real and we need to address them. But this is the same war that they have been fighting for decades."

And then there was the water tank. During the raids, a grower who had been working to get into compliance with state regulations claimed that his 50,000 gallon water tank had been drained by law enforcement. The man was a client of hydrological engineer Brad Job, and Job, an employee of Pacific Watershed Associates, an environmental consulting firm, repeated his client's allegation on a local radio station. The idea that law enforcement was going around draining water tanks in a drought quickly became a big part of the local narrative about the June raids.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman denied it, as did Humboldt Sheriff Downey. Downey cited the fire risk in the area as a reason for not draining the tanks. But on other occasions, I've seen Mendocino County law enforcement break and destroy water infrastructure. And Sheriff Allman's repeated exhortations that the owner of the tank should come forward to file an official complaint rang hollow given that doing so would likely mean a trip to jail.

click to enlarge Weed farmers like Casey O'Neill  have a deep respect for the environment. - ADRIAN FERNANDEZ BAUMANN
  • Adrian Fernandez Baumann
  • Weed farmers like Casey O'Neill have a deep respect for the environment.


Near the end of the Grange Hall meeting in Laytonville, Will (he declined to give his last name), baby-faced and impassioned, stood up. "Three years ago our family purchased a large parcel. ... The previous tenants had done a lot of damage to the land," he said. "They had dumped trash in the ponds they had left jugs of used motor oil in the woods, done no maintenance of the forest. ... And thanks to the income of cannabis in the last three years our land is almost out of ecological debt."

People like Will, 23, who has a degree in agroecology, might represent the best hope for cannabis to keep being grown in this area. Farmers like him and O'Neill have a deep respect for the environment and are pushing for a transition to craft cannabis, with connoisseur branding. And a key component of that brand will be an organic, environmentally sound, water board-compliant certification.

This summer, I visited Will's farm and admired his well-tended garden: 25 healthy plants, which, according to him, were only using one and a quarter gallons of water in the hot days of late June. Will runs the farm with his dad, Kevin, adhering to many best practices. For most of his life, Kevin was a yacht captain and a ship builder and he takes a philosophical view of the land. "A part of that is having been a guy who built boats," Kevin explained. "I always approach life as a voyage. And the idea being this is the new ship, and when I'm done skippering, it'll be someone else's."

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