Cultivation Law News

Water regulators target pirate marijuana farmers in Southern California

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Marijuana Enforcement Team served search warrants at several residences in Phelan, Calif. on June 21, 2018. High Desert areas such as Lucerne Valley, Newberry Springs and Phelan have become hot spots for marijuana cultivation. (Sarah Alvarado for The Sun/SCNG)

After Riverside County deputies raided an unlicensed cannabis farm in the small, unincorporated community of Aguanga, they found nearly 3,000 plants growing scattered between the brush.

The tip that led Sgt. Tyson Voss and his team to that illicit farm last month came from a source you might not expect: the Cannabis Enforcement Unit of the California State Water Resources Control Board.

The state water agency created a cannabis team four years ago to investigate marijuana growers in Northern California who divert or pollute waterways. Last year, the enforcement effort expanded into Southern California, with increased staffing in Santa Ana that’s part of a broader push to minimize the damage that cannabis cultivation can wreak on water quality and water supply.

The water agency’s cannabis-enforcement mission lines up well with local law enforcement and district attorneys. Environmental damage remains one of several crimes that can make marijuana cultivation a felony under the state’s new, more permissive cannabis laws.

Since the Water Board’s marijuana enforcement team launched in Southern California in 2017, Yvonne West, director of the Office of Enforcement for the State Water Resources Control Board, said staff has helped inspect sites and file reports for roughly 20 ongoing criminal cases against cannabis farmers.

Farms can harm waterways

For decades, unregulated marijuana farms have harmed California waterways.

Banned pesticides often wind up in nearby surface streams, West said. Water is sometimes diverted from a legitimate source to irrigate a bad actor’s farm. Chemicals from fertilizers and fuel from generators leaches from cannabis grows into nearby water supplies. Raw sewage – created when back-country farm workers aren’t provided with adequate bathrooms – spills from illicit pot farms into nearby streams.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Marijuana Enforcement Team served search warrants at several homes in Phelan, Calif. on June 21, 2018. Water regulators are now helping lead law enforcement to illegal cannabis farms. (Sarah Alvarado for The Sun/SCNG)

Sometimes, even licensed cultivators unknowingly cause problems when they grade land for farms or roads without properly controlling the associated debris. The sediment churned up by such grading can cause serious problems with water flow and for nearby fisheries, West said.

To tackle these problems, the Water Board’s Cannabis Enforcement Unit in 2014 launched a pilot program in Northern California.

A small task force began helping California Department of Fish and Wildlife investigate damage from marijuana farms hidden in the rural areas of places such as Humboldt and Mendocino counties. Since then, West said the growing Northern California team has participated in hundreds of cannabis enforcement inspections.

The state Water Board also launched a water quality permit program. All commercial cannabis cultivators who want annual licenses from the state must pay between $600 and $8,000 for a permit that shows they’re adhering to regulations aimed at protecting water quality and supplies.

So far, West said they’ve received 1,157 applications for water quality permits and enrolled 619 cultivation sites in the program. That includes 115 sites in Southern California’s coastal region, including much of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Expanding efforts

Proposition 64, the 2016 state law that legalized recreational marijuana, included a mandate and funding to expand programs aimed at offsetting the environmental harms caused by the cannabis industry.

The Water Board’s Southern California cannabis enforcement team was spun up in the past fiscal year. And while enforcement efforts will remain focused in Northern California, where West said impacts from outdoor cultivation are most prevalent, the agency has plans to expand efforts in Southern California going into 2019. The local team now consists of just three people based in Santa Ana, but West said they plan to hire four more staffers this fiscal year.

Water regulators are still learning about the impacts of cannabis cultivation in Southern California.

Unlike in Northern California, where illegal marijuana farms are often large-scale outdoor grows hidden deep on public land, West said farms in Southern California are more likely to be indoors on property owned by the growers. While those operations might not pose risks to endangered salmon in nearby streams (a problem linked to marijuana farms in Northern California), West said Southern California farms are more likely to discharge dangerous chemicals into community water supplies.

To Read The Rest Of This Article By Brooke Staggs on The OCR

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Published: August 08, 2018

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