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Illegal Marijuana Cultivation Threatens California Wildlife and Water Supply

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Marijuana cultivation by illegal growers in California has surged in recent years, leading to dire consequences as growers steal public resources and abuse the environment. 

A bust in Cleveland National Forest in early October 2021 revealed sprawling illicit operations; officers destroyed upwards of 1,400 marijuana plants, worth around $4 million. And this was just one of potentially thousands of active farms in California alone. 

As demand for illicit marijuana increases, growers are turning to larger plots of land to run their farms. While many growth operations used to operate indoors, improvements in outdoor greenhouse technology have enabled growers to abuse a variety of new locations, such as remote desert wastelands and even protected state forests. 

In San Bernardino County, greenhouses cultivating illegal marijuana dot the desert landscape in multitudes. 

Sgt. Jon Anderson, a pilot with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, surveyed the illegal farms from above with a helicopter during the summer of 2021 in order to catalogue the extent of the illegal operations within the county. 

“Right here you got one there, one there, one there and here, here, here and here. You can’t throw a baseball without hitting one,” Anderson said

In addition to the desert, many illegal marijuana farmers take advantage of California forests to hide their operations. Some farms go undetected for years while they harm the environment and steal water from public sources. At one site in California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest, more than 3,000 pounds of trash, likely dumped by growers, were found and had to be hauled out by a helicopter.

Much of the worst environmental damage is executed on public lands, with growers having leveled hilltops, bulldozed Joshua trees and dipped into the water table. 

“[They’re] killing off … America’s public lands, killing off the wildlife, killing off our water,” Kevin Mayer, a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement assistant special agent, said

In drought-stricken California, water theft is a major problem that illegal marijuana farms only worsen. In some areas, the water table is dropping and streams are drying as tens of diversions siphon off water to illicit marijuana plants. According to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s office, local watersheds are losing water flow at an “alarming rate” because of illegal marijuana cultivation.

In tandem with the complex water theft systems, dangerous and illegal chemicals are often found on the unlicensed marijuana grow sites where they are used as pesticides and herbicides. As the chemicals are applied, they enter local groundwater and freshwater supply, contaminating them and creating environmental hazards. 

“[They are] a very quick and effective way to get rid of insects and wildlife, but [are] equally detrimental to humans, water, soil and indigenous tribes,” Mourad Gabriel, regional wildlife ecologist for law enforcement and investigations in the U.S. Forest Service, said.

Illegal growers use one particular rodenticide, d-Con, in forests to keep wood rats off marijuana plants. The pesticide is persistent, showing up in endangered and rare species like spotted owls and Pacific fishers, a member of the weasel family. 

At the beginning of October 2021, United States Forest Service special agents found evidence of pesticides so deadly that they are banned in the U.S. near Ortega Highway in Orange County. 

The use of pesticides is especially noticeable on farms that operate on protected lands. 

“There are thousands of these sites in places the public thinks are pristine, with obscene amounts of chemicals at each one. Each one is a little environmental disaster,” Craig Thompson, a wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said.

Elaina Martin is a City News Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at elainarm@uci.edu.