Turning off the tap: California county hopes to dry up illegal cannabis grows by limiting water supply

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California’s Siskiyou County has identified a novel way to evaporate the growing number of illegal cannabis farms sprouting up in a state that seems to forever be on the brink of drought: restrict where water trucks can go.

After green-lighting the new ordinance under the Sikiyou County Code earlier this month, the Board of Supervisors issued a notice of a public hearing to gather additional input “relating to water trucks and regulating their use upon certain county roads.” That meeting is scheduled for June 1 or as soon thereafter as possible in response to COVID-19 infection rates at the time.

The new ordinance — which exempts emergency vehicles, cannot conflict with state or federal law and applies to about a dozen roads in unincorporated parts of the Butte Valley and Big Springs areas — defines a water truck as a vehicle designed or being used to carry water or tow water tanks or bladders of 100 gallons or more.

The change is meant to answer the growing number of illegal weed farms in the county, which is in the northernmost part of the state and shares a border with Oregon, particularly when three-quarters of California is currently experiencing extreme drought. The National Drought Mitigation Center defines that, in part, as fire season lasting year-round and insufficient water for agriculture, wildlife and urban needs.

Ed Valenzuela, a supervisor for Siskiyou County, reports that there has been “a huge proliferation of illegal grows” in the county over the last few years and seeing dozens of water trucks on rural roads going to suspected marijuana farms is common, reports Jefferson Public Radio.

According to a Press Democrat article back in 2014, researchers have estimated each marijuana plant consumes six gallons of water a day. If accurate, that rate would mean the “plants were siphoning off 180,000 gallons of water daily in each watershed” over the average 150-day growing cycle for outdoor plants, the article calculates.

“Plants were siphoning off 180,000 gallons of water daily in each watershed” over the average 150-day growing cycle for outdoor plants. /

“Plants were siphoning off 180,000 gallons of water daily in each watershed” over the average 150-day growing cycle for outdoor plants. / PHOTO BY KRBLOKHIN / ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS

The Mendocino Cannabis Policy Council and the Emerald Growers Association, based on polling cultivators about their water usage, suggest one growing formula is to use one gallon of water each day to produce one pound (454 grams) of cured cannabis flower buds, Marijuana Venture reported in 2015.

Set to take effect 30 days after its passage, an exemption to the ordinance in Siskiyou County would only be available through a written request to and approval of the county’s Director of Public Works. A permit indicating a valid agricultural errand would be needed.

Any special permits will not be available for cannabis cultivation, Siskiyou County district attorney Kirk Andrus said, per Mount Shasta Herald. The idea is to ensure any attempts to pump water from privately owned agricultural wells to be used for illegal cannabis grow-ops are greatly reduced or eliminated.

It’s not clear whether or not potential penalties will have the intended deterrence effect. Any person or company violating the rules “shall be guilty of an infraction or misdemeanour and shall be fined US$100 ($121) or in an amount that the Board of Supervisors may specify by resolution,” the ordinance reads.

Illegal water diversion at illicit grow-op site in Dobbyn Creek area of California. /

Illegal water diversion at illicit grow-op site in Dobbyn Creek area of California. / PHOTO BY HUMBOLDT COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, MARIJUANA ENFORCEMENT TEAM

Last year, the supervisors approved an urgency ordinance prohibiting water extraction and discharge to irrigate illegal marijuana crops, a breach of which could result in a US$5,000 ($6,050) fine, the Siskiyou Daily News reported at the time.

But Valenzuela sees the new, smaller penalty as a start. “If this was a legal operation, I think we’d be talking about a completely different scenario,” he suggested, per Jefferson Public Radio. “Illegal marijuana has been around in Siskiyou County, unfortunately, for a long time, and it’s just getting way out of hand and we’re just trying to get our hands around it,” he said.

But the change has led to protests, including from those who argue they should be able to sell their water and that the latest ordinance “unfairly impacts Asian Americans living and farming in Siskiyou County.”

Southwest of Siskiyou County is Humboldt County, which runs along the Pacific Ocean. Late last week, a multi-agency team served multiple search warrants in Humboldt County, finding that six parcels did not have the required county and state permits and/or licences to grow cannabis commercially.

Weed products were seized and about 5,500 cannabis plants were destroyed, according to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. Among others, the authorities found more than a handful of water diversion violations, including several that were substantial.

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