"The belief is to get what you can while the growing's good, because it won't last forever," said Lovelace, who supports legal use of medicinal marijuana. "There are a lot of folks out there who just don't care about the environmental harm they are doing."
In California, local governments have authority over land use. They issue permits to grade new roads, terrace hillsides for agriculture and build ponds. When the matter exceeds local authority, such as withdrawing water from a stream to irrigate a crop, they require a property owner to obtain permission from the appropriate state or federal agency.
But their efforts to regulate medicinal marijuana cultivation have been largely unsuccessful.
In 2008, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors adopted an ordinance regulating marijuana cultivation. It was a groundbreaking attempt to legitimize the medical marijuana industry and address environmental concerns and nuisance complaints from neighbors.
Under the ordinance, growers paid the county $50 per marijuana plant, each of which was then marked with a unique numbered "zip-tie" tag. The fee covered county regulatory costs, including inspections to ensure compliance with environmental standards. The grower industry welcomed the move and helped draft the rules.
But in January, the county decided to gut the ordinance after the U.S. Department of Justice warned that it violated federal law by permitting growers to cultivate a federally controlled substance. The notice included a warning that local government officials might be prosecuted individually.
This put a fast chill over other local government attempts to control the environmental effects of the rapidly growing industry.
Many marijuana growers strive to minimize environmental harm. Among other things, they want to create a product that is safe for humans to consume, free from harmful chemicals.
Patricia Smith, a Nevada County grower, adheres to a voluntary industry program called "Clean Green Certification" which licenses marijuana that meets certain environmental standards. She also supports appropriate government regulation.
"I don't care if you're giving it away for free. Certain safety standards have to be met," said Smith, who chairs the county's chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a marijuana advocacy group. "I'll be the first to say not every person that is growing out there is an ethical person or a steward of the environment. I've seen some horrific things."
In one recent case, game warden Karnow cited a Nevada County grower for illegally damming a stream that flows into Dry Creek, a tributary of the American River that supports salmon and steelhead. The grower excavated an 8-foot-tall earthen dam across the creek so he could pump water to a giant bladder, which then fed his cultivation site.
The grower pleaded no contest on Aug. 27 to a misdemeanor charge of illegally diverting the stream.
"He didn't realize, apparently, the havoc he was wreaking by diverting the stream. And many of them don't," said Nevada County District Attorney Clifford Newell, whose office prosecuted the case. "They flaunt it being a natural herb. But many times there's nothing natural about the plants they grow."
Part of the problem is that marijuana consumers are often blind to the methods used to grow the crop -- where the pot they are smoking was grown, or whether it was treated with pesticides.
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