California water regulators help target black market marijuana farmers
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 pilot cannabis team four years ago to investigate marijuana growers in Northern California who divert or pollute waterways in their effort to profit via cannabis. 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.
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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.
Sometimes, 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.
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