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Monday, February 2

Pot farming's disaster in slow motion: It's amazing how much damage lazy white guys can do.

A traditional garden on public lands, Pugh says, has one or two growers and fewer than fifty plants. The gardener, who lives locally, hikes in every other day or so, carrying water for his plants. Firearms are uncommon, and locations are predictable. “They’re within a quarter mile of a road,” Pugh explains, “and they’re rarely uphill. White guys are lazy

Much has changed since the following news report was published in October 2009. The meme that the report highlights, which is that the worst ecological damage in the USA from pot cultivation is done by Mexican crime syndicates, had collapsed by 2014.  This happened for three major reasons:

First, as the drought intensified in California, many local communities began fighting 'mom and pop' medical pot growers, who were diverting big amounts of water for their "grows," as they're called. And so the local press began reporting more and more on the situation.  From this, the public -- at least in California -- began to see that while the ecological damage done by the cartel growers was spectacular, the non-cartel growers were causing damage that was death by a thousand cuts.

No people were more surprised by this revelation than California's medical pot growers -- virtually all of whom big defenders of the ecology.  So at first the reaction was denial.  Yet it was a matter of one hand not knowing what the other was doing until the local news reports snowballed.

Second, the landmark study done by energy expert Evan Mills, first published in 2011. He did what no one else had done up to that point: analyzed the carbon footprint of commercial indoor marijuana cultivation.  His finding was that the footprint was huge.

Again, the initial reaction was denial -- and again, from the pot growers who prided themselves on being defenders of the ecology and supported draconian legislation to reduce the carbon footprint.  (I'll be returning to Mills's study in later posts.)

Third, by 2012 NBC News was reporting that the big pot operations (both cartel and non-cartel) were moving out of their traditional haunts in California's national parks and the heavily wooded far north of the state and into the state's farming heartland in the Central Valley -- where they were growing huge plots of marijuana virtually with impunity as the region's tiny, bucolic, underfunded police forces looked on helplessly. This is the same Central Valley that was heading into a catastrophic drought and water scarcity crisis.

All right, with those caveats in mind, I'll turn back the clock to 2009 to convey how much information was emerging, and how early, about the damage done by commercial marijuana farming in the United States. See the website for links to articles cited in the report.
Marijuana growers worsening California drought
By Eoin O'Carroll
Bright Green Blog
Christian Science Monitor
October 10, 2009

Officials in California's drought-plagued Mendocino County have noted that large-scale marijuana plots have drained rivers and streams

Large marijuana plots hidden deep in California's public lands have illegally diverted hundreds of millions of gallons of water, compounding shortages caused by the state's ongoing drought.

Public officials in Mendocino County, a region on California's north coast known for its lush redwood forests and potent cannabis, have witnessed rivers and creeks drained by the large-scale drug operations.
"They're using a whole lot of water." said Lt. Rusty Noe of the Mendocino County sheriff's office in a telephone interview with the Bright Green Blog.

Lt. Noe noted that police have seized more than 500,000 pot plants this season in Mendocino County alone. Each plant requires about one gallon of water per day. [A big underestimate by many accounts] California is entering the fourth year of a severe drought, with residents in some areas facing the first mandatory water restrictions in two decades and farms laying off thousands of workers.

"It's really affecting our water supply," said Noe of the illicit growing sites.

Noe also cited other environmental damage caused by the plantations, including the dumping of toxic chemicals (a subject we covered a year ago) and erosion of soil and underbrush.

"These camps are just unbelievable," said Noe, who noted that the problem is getting steadily worse each year.

"It is making a huge resource impact," Dennis Slota, a hydrologist with the Mendocino County Water Agency, told the Bright Green Blog over the phone. Mr. Slota said that he knew personally of two steelhead trout streams that are now dead from illegal water diversion.

Slota suggested that most of the environmental destruction is caused not by Mendocino's local pot growers, who have long taken advantage of the county's mild climate and tolerant views toward the drug, but by mostly Mexican crime syndicates that, in the 1990s, began planting large plots deep in the woods, which they would abandon after the October-November harvest.

His view was echoed by Ron Pugh, a US Forest Service special agent, who was quoted in the spring issue of Terrain, a Northern California environmental magazine.

Says Pugh about the sheer volume of grows, “This is not a hippie thing.”

He’s come prepared with a list of comparisons between a “hippie” grow and a DTO site -- one maintained by a drug trafficking organization.

A traditional garden on public lands, Pugh says, has one or two growers and fewer than fifty plants. The gardener, who lives locally, hikes in every other day or so, carrying water for his plants. Firearms are uncommon, and locations are predictable.

“They’re within a quarter mile of a road,” Pugh explains, “and they’re rarely uphill. White guys are lazy.”

The DTO sites, on the other hand, are as remote as the growers can get, often three miles from the nearest road. They contain an average of 6,600 plants, tended by an average of seven growers who live in tents the entire season, from May to October.

The growers are aided by scanners, radios, night-vision goggles, an arsenal of weapons, and truckloads of plastic pipe to divert area streams to their plants, sometimes from as far as a half-mile away. When they abandon the site in the fall, they leave behind mountains of trash, about as much trash as a small city dump.

Writing for Blue Living Ideas, a news website that covers water issues, Jennifer Lance notes that only 1 in 8 of those arrested in Mendocino this season for growing marijuana are from the county. She also notes that the county's district attorney is investigating at least one recently seized grow operation for "environmental crimes" and "water diversion," on top of drug crimes.

Update:  Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, DC advocacy group that seeks to remove criminal penalties for marijuana use, obviously has a different take. Read his comment here. [See website for link.]
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