California continues its struggle against crippling drought-everyone is looking for someone or something to blame. The latest "villain" to come under attack is an easy target for headline-hungry media – cannabis farming, legal or otherwise, is " sucking rivers dry", according to Mike McGuire, Chairman of the California State Senate Joint Committee of Fisheries and Aquaculture.
Speaking at an informational Committee hearing, McGuire claimed some of the State's 50,000 pot farmers put profit first with no regard for the environment. But how fair is this accusation?
A slow moving train wreck
There is no doubting the impact of the drought, now in its fourth year. One study estimated the total cost of the drought state-wide in 2014 was $2.2 billion. More than 17,000 agricultural jobs were lost and almost half a million acres of irrigated cropland were going out of production in the Central Valley, Central Coast, and Southern California. The same study described the management of groundwater resources as a "slow-moving train wreck".
The population levels of native fish is a good indication of environmental stress and right now things aren't looking good. In 2014, only one in twenty Coho salmon survived the winter spawning run in the Sacramento River.
But how unusual is this drought? A report published last year in the journal Geophysical Research Letters concluded "While 3 year periods of persistent below-average soil moisture are not uncommon, the current event is the most severe drought in the last 1200 years, with single year and accumulated moisture deficits worse than any previous continuous span of dry years." So, this is a truly rare event, says the report, but it's "not outside the range of natural variability."
No snow, no H2O
California's unique climate and weather system relies on massive winter storms to pack the Cascades and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges with snow which, in normal years, acts as a slow-release natural reservoir providing up to one third of the water supply. When, as this year, warmer conditions lead to precipitation falling as rain, not snow, that reservoir is seriously depleted. This year's snow falls are only 12 percent of normal.
This makes California vulnerable to long-term global warming and the predicted hotter, drier, summers ahead. Intense agricultural production already puts pressure on the land.
Trouble in the Emerald Triangle
The explosion in cannabis production following Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for medical use, just adds to the strain. A single marijuana plant can use almost 5 gallons of water a day and the growers often divert huge quantities of water illegally to meet the demand. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) claims this is leading to rivers being lowered to dangerous levels.
The CDFW also points to the hazards of higher sedimentation and concentrations of pesticides as examples of the wider ecological impact of pot farming. The situation is especially serious in Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties– California's Emerald Triangle, which may be the world's greatest cannabis growing region.
If next year's referendum gives the thumbs up to recreational cannabis use, the potential for catastrophic damage to California's ecology and wildlife is immense. Without proper regulation and enforcement, the situation could run out of control.
There are plenty of critics lining up their evidence against the industry. The Salmonid Restoration Federation currently lists 19 articles and blogs in support of its campaign to protect fisheries.
A looming cash crop
The International Business Times ran a story claiming pot growing could be worth $35 billion by 2020 if it becomes legal at the federal level. The IBT paints a graphic picture of land clearance, pesticides and rat poison, disappearing wildlife, as well as indoor cultivation eating up massive amounts of energy.
A piece in The Nation is even more damning, describing "shrunken, muddy streams" as well as "rivers choked with algae and wild lands tainted with chemical poisons." The article also points to the problem of rats, which are attracted to cannabis plants. Rat poison like warfarin is "making its way up the food chain."
"Growers shoot or poison bears to keep them from raiding their encampments." Added to that is the problem of growers dumping their used soil, with residual fertilizers, where it pollutes waterways and can trigger blooms of toxic algae.
No reasonable critic would dump all the blame for California's drought on marijuana farming but the controversy sends a clear message for pro-dope campaigners in the coming referendum – clean up the industry, go with the regulations, and get a lot greener or risk a backlash from the massive environmentalist lobby.
(Image credit: Thinkstock)