"There's a huge population of people who eat organic food for breakfast and don't have any awareness at all of how their cannabis was cultivated or harvested," said Alison Sterling Nichols, a Humboldt County environmental consultant working with county leaders to reduce the environmental cost of marijuana growing.
"They don't even think about what was put on it or what trees came down to plant it. There's just a complete disconnect."
The consequences of that disconnect are especially acute in Humboldt and Mendocino counties, long the hotbed of marijuana cultivation in the state.
The demand for medical marijuana has produced thousands of new clearcuts in North Coast forests. In each case, dozens of trees are cut, the land is graded for planting, and water is procured -- usually from the nearest stream -- to irrigate the crop.
The region is struggling to restore endangered coho salmon in its coastal creeks. Millions of dollars have been spent on restoration projects, and logging and agriculture are under strict regulation. At the same time, marijuana cultivation has exploded.
"What I've seen is kind of similar to how logging used to take place back in the early days, before laws were really strong," said Scott Bauer, an environmental scientist and coho recovery coordinator at the Department of Fish and Game office in Eureka.
"It's this gold-rush mentality right now, where everybody's out to get their piece of the action. So you see these grows have gotten substantially bigger over the past couple of years."
One reason is that Proposition 215 allows medical marijuana users to form "collectives" to grow marijuana. A single grower can gather the doctor certificates from many patients and grow marijuana on their behalf. Instead of one person growing six mature plants, large grows have become common with hundreds of plants cultivated on behalf of many patients.
Bauer said some growers fell trees, push them over the edge of a hillside, then bulldoze dirt on top of the trees to create flat planting areas. The bulldozed trees eventually rot, and in the next big storm, the piled soil cascades into the creek below, burying fish-spawning habitat.
Most of these grows get water from the nearest stream, Bauer said. Normally this requires a stream alteration permit from Fish and Game. But many growers either don't know that or don't care, and set about engineering makeshift dams and ponds.
Growers are tapping this water when wildlife need it most. The North Coast is known for its heavy rainfall. But that usually stops by June, and wildlife must survive through summer and fall on water that fills the streams from springs and seeps. This is also when marijuana plants demand most water.
Often water cannot be delivered by gravity flow to a cultivation site. So growers run diesel generators to power water pumps, which in turn fill storage tanks. The pumps may only run a few hours a day, but that can be enough to do serious harm.
"During that time, there is a dewatering process that will occur for hundreds of feet below the pump site," said Jackie Krug, a Humboldt County game warden. "You may not even realize the impacts you've just had, but you've just killed everything in that stretch of stream."
State officials are caught in the same legal bind that precludes local governments from regulating the industry. Fish and Game, for instance, is happy to consider issuing stream bed alteration permits to marijuana growers, but only under a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"If somebody were to call and say, 'I'm diverting water, I need a permit,' we're not going to ask what that diversion is for," said Bauer.
Fish and Game is working to assess the industrywide water demand on the North Coast. It will start by examining a single watershed using aerial surveys to count marijuana grows. The goal is to understand how the industry is affecting the regional environment.
Others hope consumer and grower education help address the problem.
"As long as we can't regulate it as a community, we have to rely on it being successfully self-regulated, which is rare in any industry," Nichols said. "It's just time to be less greedy and more responsible."
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