Legalized for medical use in 1996 and for recreational use in the November 2016 elections, cannabis has been and continues to be a huge money maker in California.  According to a Christian Science Monitor statistic, California produces 60-70 percent of the cannabis consumed across the United States and reaps $11 to $17 billion annually. But the “green rush” that has particularly taken over Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties in northern California—an area known as the Emerald Triangle—has not come without significant cost to the environment, specifically the amount of water used to grow cannabis.

California has been in a state of drought emergency for the past five Humboldt county water regualtionsyears.  This was recently changed by Governor Jerry Brown’s executive order indicating that all counties but Tuolumne, Tulare, Kings, and Fresno were officially out of that state of emergency.  Despite this positive change, California still faces water shortage and quality issues that can have detrimental effects on local ecosystems.

The Current Water Climate in California

Northern California is home to two meccas of biodiversity: the Pacific Mid-Coastal Freshwater Ecoregion and the Northern California Coastal Forests Terrestrial Ecoregion. The explosion of the cannabis industry in the Emerald Triangle has had direct effects on these regions including threats to wildlife, heavy water use during drought, contamination, and erosion.

In a longitudinal study of watersheds, Scott Bauer, a senior environmental scientist for California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, found that marijuana cultivation had increased from 55 percent to 104 percent from 2009 to 2012.  Cultivation has only increased since then, and now that recreational marijuana has been legalized, it is unlikely that this momentum will slow down.

Because of this growth in such a concentrated area, the landscape has drastically changed as growers bulldoze forest to make room for cannabis, resulting in the blocking and contamination of water by silt, the mass death of animals like Pacific fishers as a result of pesticides and salmon because of water shortages.

80% of dead Pacific fishers were found to have been exposed to pesticides used to kill mice in marijuana fields

And although the coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead trout have been endangered for a while, the explosion of unregulated cannabis cultivation has nearly eradicated them entirely.

Why Legal Weed  Means Cleaner Water

A major contributor to this environmental problem is cannabis’ precarious legal status. Although it is legalized in the state, it remains federally illegal. While cultivators may want permits to build roads or divert water in ways that comply with water regulations, seeking permits puts them in the federal government’s sights, and that risks everything since at any time, the feds have the legal right to tear the cannabis industry down.  Additionally, because cannabis is not regarded as a legitimate crop by the FDA, it can never be awarded the coveted “organic” label.  This doesn’t exactly encourage growers to risk expensive but more environmentally friendly organic growing methods.

To alleviate the burden placed on the environment by cannabis cultivation, the state has made a concerted effort to hold growers accountable for their water consumption. State law SB 837, signed by Governor Jerry Brown, establishes a comprehensive means of regulating water consumption in cannabis cultivation.  The law requires growers to apply for state permits for the irrigation of water, and while it is a huge change, it is not totally unwelcome by the cannabis community.  In fact, California Growers Association, a network of cannabis cultivators worked with lawmakers to create the bill.

Cannabis growers don’t want to be seen as enemies to the environment, especially since establishing legitimacy and becoming mainstream are powerful tools in the legalization movement.  When unregulated cannabis cultivation is starving fish of the water they need to survive and changing the landscape, it becomes a much more difficult sell to those on the fence about its legal status.

The law directly addresses one of the major problems in cannabis cultivation.  The plant needs water most during the summer, a season during which water in California is scarcest and also most valuable to the survival of aquatic ecosystems.  When growers use watersheds coming from rivers, they often dry those streams up, destroying the ecosystem necessary for the preservation of aquatic life.

The law requires cultivators to build a storage of water that they will use during the summer months in order to protect those watersheds from overconsumption

Not everyone will necessarily receive the permit for storage, however.  Fish and Wildlife will first determine what the fish need to survive before permitting growers to access those water sources at all, so some growers may have to resort to drilling wells or purchasing water some other way.

California drought and water regulationsCritics of the law worry that it isn’t enough and that some growers will apply for permits, create the required storage of water but continue to use streams, showing their water storage only when or if someone comes around asking them to prove their compliance with the law.  But the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s response to those concerns is forceful; growers will be closely watched, and if they are found to be noncompliant, they could lose everything and be forced to start the process over.

The Future of California Water and Cannabis

Despite the scarcity of water, increased regulations, and environmental risk, growers remain optimistic about the future.  In fact, some argue that the future of water sustainability will come from the Emerald Triangle, a region highly motivated to continue to produce marijuana while complying with state regulations.  Cannabis is a highly valuable crop in California, and growers are not simply going to walk away from its lucrative potential.  While greens produce an average of $64 per square foot and strawberries produce an average of $22 per square foot,

Cannabis generates an average of $112 per square foot.  No one is going to walk away from that kind of green

While the new regulations on water certainly present an obstacle to growers, they also present an opportunity for the industry.  Potentially more than any other agricultural group, cannabis growers are hungry for sustainable practices, and that means that the business of water sustainability is in high demand.  Cannabis growers aren’t just going to go away; they are going to find a way to make their industry work.

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.