Marijuana Cultivation Straining California Water Supplies

Published April 14, 2014

An increase in marijuana growing on the West Coast is straining water supplies in drought-stricken California and imperiling the region’s salmon populations, environmental groups claim.

Prodigious Water Needs
Marijuana plants require up to six gallons of water per day, putting tremendous strain on water resources where marijuana plants are grown in large quantities. The Northern California coast is known as the “emerald triangle” for its high concentration of marijuana growers. The same region, however, includes important breeding territory for salmon. With the Golden State suffering a prolonged drought, environmental groups worry the increase in marijuana growing is pushing salmon populations to the breaking point.

The deforestation that often accompanies marijuana growing also threatens salmon populations, environmentalists note. Marijuana growers favor locations where water is plentiful, typically close to streams and rivers. They often cut down trees and brush to make room for the marijuana plants, which removes important streambed buffers. After the buffers are removed, more soil is eroded into the streams. The eroded soil contains fertilizers and pesticides used to encourage marijuana plant growth, compounding the eroded soil’s negative impact on streams and rivers.

“I have nothing against people growing dope,” Dave Bitts, a Humboldt County commercial fisherman and the president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, told National Public Radio. “But if you do, we want you to grow your crop in a way that doesn’t screw up fish habitat. There is no salmon-bearing watershed at this point that we can afford to sacrifice.”

Water Theft Problem
In Mendocino County, law enforcement officials are cracking down on marijuana growers stealing water from streams, ponds, and open irrigation canals. Police vow they will charge such marijuana growers with grand theft of a natural resource, a far more serious charge than petty theft.

“We know in the fall of the year we’re going to be seeing upwards of 5 million gallons of water per day being used for illegal marijuana. Not medical, illegal,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman told San Francisco television station KPIX.

Political Irony
“Marijuana plants require large amounts of water, which can put strains on California water resources even during years with normal precipitation. During drought years, the pressure becomes more severe,” said Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.

“The irony of the situation is marijuana consumers tend to culturally identify with environmental activist groups and environmental issues,” said Lehr. “At the same time they rally in support of environmental activist causes, they are personally contributing to one of the primary stress factors on California fish populations, water quality, and drought conditions.”

“Marijuana growers’ impact on California water supplies will hopefully encourage people to study sound science before blindly championing environmental activist claims. Market-based water reforms can free up more water so all forms of agriculture and water usage will have less negative impact on water resources,” Lehr explained.

Karen Dove ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Bradenton, Florida.