Water is life. We know this. Humans need it to survive, as does the flora and fauna with which we share this planet. But as water emergencies across the globe continue to reinforce the seriousness of climate change, the state of California finds itself in the midst of a historic drought.
How bad is it? As of July 20, the New York Times reported that reservoirs in the state were holding “about half as much water as usual for this time of year.” That’s extreme drought territory, which can often lead to desperation.
One such group feeling that desperation: illegal cannabis cultivators.
Indeed, it appears that a majority of those responsible for stealing water from the Golden State are thought to be in the business of growing marijuana without a license. Lacking access to proper water sources, some outlaw cultivators are now “tapping into fire hydrants and drilling unauthorized water wells” as the L.A. Times recently reported.
During a recent sting in L.A.’s Antelope Valley, federal, state, and local law enforcement officers arrested a total of 131 people. In addition, they also managed to seize 65 vehicles; 33,480 pound of cannabis; “dozens” of firearms; and nearly $30,000. All in all, 19 individuals were charged with crimes of water theft.
On July 7, the bust was announced by Curt Fallin of the Drug Enforcement Administration, who told reporters that most Californians would be “shocked and disappointed” by the amount of water being used daily by illegal cannabis growers.
“By our calculation,” he stated, “the illegal grows in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties require an astounding 5.4 million gallons of water a day, every day.”
As a result of the drought coupled with increasing demand on a limited water supply, law enforcement crackdowns on illegal grows are spiking again, with said water shortages serving as their headline motivation.
Earlier this month, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office shared news of its own efforts to stamp out water theft by illegal cannabis growers.
In total, deputies with the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Marijuana Enforcement Team reportedly served 23 search warrants over the course of four days. Their stated goal was “to investigate illegal cannabis cultivation in four Humboldt County watersheds,” according to an official release.
In the same release, the sheriff’s office also stressed the cost of water theft on local watersheds and related native fish and wildlife.
“Through scientific studies,” the statement noted, “these watersheds were identified to be losing waterflow at an alarming rate due to illegal commercial cannabis cultivation. The watersheds are home to protected species such as Coho and Chinook salmon, and Steelhead trout who are already faced with unprecedented drought conditions.”
“Illegal cultivation activities during a drought year put an exuberant amount of pressure on already strained fish and wildlife resources,” it continued. “This week’s eradication effort will help to conserve salmon and steelhead habitat critical for species survival.”
While serving warrants, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Marijuana Enforcement Team also reportedly found “juvenile fish in dammed pools in the watersheds where water was being pumped with large gasoline-powered pumps.” This bleak visual only further illustrates the risk illegal grows stealing water poses to local protected species like Chinook salmon and steelhead trout.
As of press time, no arrests had yet been made as a result of the Humboldt-area warrants.
While many law-abiding cannabis cultivators will welcome such enforcement as a means of boosting the legal industry (the less illegal cannabis that exists, the more legal cannabis people will buy, the thinking goes) others may not take the sight of law enforcement once more storming in to destroy cannabis crops as a harbinger of good things to come.
Regardless, it is abundantly clear that water is a resource the state of California values highly, and as such, it will do what it determines is necessary to protect it.
On a related note, as these discussions and issues continue, it’s extremely important that we distinguish between the water issues of illegal growers and the issues of those licensed to cultivate cannabis in California. Only last week, a new study out of UC Berkeley revealed findings that “marijuana farms in California, relative to other crops, consume less water than previously believed.”
Thus, we’d be wise not to take the bait on blaming cannabis as a thirsty crop and instead focus on the bad actors making it tougher for everyone else.