CA seeks water relief from pot farmers

marijuana-leafCalifornia’s protracted drought has upended business as usual for many of the Golden State’s marijuana farmers, who now face both increased scrutiny and increased cooperation from regulators.

An uneasy partnership

With the prospect of a big ballot initiative on recreational marijuana coming next year, attention in Sacramento has resulted in new regulations and designated regulators. “Amid the state’s prolonged drought, Gov. Jerry Brown last year approved $3 million in funding to dispatch oversight officers and environmental scientists to identify and inspect water-thirsty pot gardens in sensitive natural settings,” the Sacramento Bee reported. “Officials from the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Fish and Wildlife so far have visited 150 sites with growers’ approval. They have issued instructions on water conservation and filed 50 notices of environmental violations.”

The changes inaugurated a new compliance program that draws together officials from the state water board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, according to the Bee. “Under pending legislation, the program stands to be expanded statewide,” although its reach is restricted to private farmers, not “outlaw growers surreptitiously using public lands[.]” Those illicit growers have come under fire in recent months for their very high rates of water consumption.

Trial by fire

Other drought-related circumstances have helped push the pot industry and state officials into closer company. Wildfires, for instance, have extended the threat of economic destruction to growers, who face their own particular problems as gray-market producers. “Marijuana farms suffer the same risks as other farmers in California — facing the potential loss of their crop, on top of the strain of the drought,” according to Alternet.

“The profitable Napa wine industry, too, is threatened by wildfires, with winemakers concerned that smoke-infused grape skins will alter the flavor of the wines. But some of those impacts are exacerbated for marijuana growers, who won’t get subsidies from the state if their crop is lost, and whose value per plant is much higher than that of many other plants.”

In from the shadows

At the same time, some California officials have set about trying to incorporate marijuana farms into a system of standardized water regulations. “California’s four-year drought has prompted authorities to broaden their approach to regulating cannabis cultivation with the aim of protecting sensitive watersheds,” the Bee noted. “In addition to the environmental compliance program, the state has begun issuing marijuana water permits and ramped up efforts to target environmental offenders through civil lawsuits.”

This month, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board overwhelmingly voted in fresh rules requiring farms in excess of 2,000 square feet either to register with itself or approved third-party agency or organization, the Guardian reported. “A number of issues including erosion control, water and wetlands buffers, irrigation runoff, chemical contamination and waste will be regulated under the new rules.”

Although the rules announced another substantial regulatory advance into marijuana farming, which has long operated under the radar, they also reflected the state’s increasingly accommodating attitude toward the once-illegal crop. “Those who don’t register but are discovered to qualify will be notified with 30 days to enroll before enforcement actions, including financial penalties, are pursued, board personnel said,” according to The Press Democrat.

Although some growers welcomed the opportunity to come out from the regulatory shadows at the state level, others cautioned that the apparent liberalization could have more dangerous consequences. “A major concern is that due to marijuana being illegal on the federal level, those farms prepared to comply and register could expose their activities to criminal charges on a federal level,” added the Guardian.

Notably, the regulations do not distinguish medical from recreational marijuana. Expectations have already arisen that the North Coast pilot program will “serve as a model for other regions, beginning with the neighboring Central Valley, whose board takes the matter up next month,” The Press Democrat noted.

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