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Calfornia North Coast illegal cannabis farms siphoning water amid drought

A bust of an illegal cannabis grow site within Sonoma Coast State Park has weeded out an even bigger problem for the North Bay suffering from a drought year — water theft.

“Cannabis plants require so much water to grow,” California State Parks Cannabis Watershed Protection Program Assistant Chief Jeremy Stinson told the Business Journal, following his team uncovering the illegal grow site in Bodega Bay that netted two arrests, 1,500 plants, 1,000 pounds of trash, pollutants and water diversion lines. State law enforcement officials reported the incident on Aug. 17.

Suspects Genaro Vargas-Vicente, 45, and Ramiro Nieto-Sebastian, 25, were booked into Sonoma County Jail on charges of illegal cannabis cultivation, gun possession and water diversion. The men are accused of channeling the water from Upper Willow Creek into several large pits lined with tarps that served as man-made wells.

“We’re trying to restore the area back to its natural state,” Stinson said of the mess left at the site.

The complexity of the problem runs deeper than seizing an illegal grow operation and stealing water at a time when supplies are scarce. Hazardous materials such as fertilizer, rodenticides, gasoline from a generator and plastic irrigation lines pollute a landscape known to attract beach goers, hikers and mushroom foragers. The property located four miles north of Jenner lies alongside Highway 1 where visitors in masses take in sights such as Arched Rock, Gleason and Goat Rock beaches.

Stinson’s special state law enforcement task force has identified more than 400 sites impacted by cannabis grows in state parks all over California.

Despite recreational use being approved by voters in 2016, trespassing and cultivating cannabis on public lands has remained a problem an ongoing problem for years, state officials contend.

For the first six months of this year, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has identified 235 illegal cannabis sites pulling water from a creek or impacting a waterway by means of damming it up for future storage. Last year, the department reported that 95 arrests were made relative to illegal cannabis cultivation, with many of them involving water theft.

“Water diversions from tributaries are very common at illegal cannabis grows, but we do not track how much water is being taken,” said Janice Mackey, the state agency’s spokeswoman.

The criminal behavior accentuated by drought covers many nooks and crannies across California, a state that recognizes cannabis as legal if licensed.

But there lies one problem, according to a Napa County Sheriff’s narcotics detective. His name, known to the Business Journal, is undisclosed to protect his identity.

The detective contends “more teeth” needs to be placed onto charges of running an unlicensed, non-compliant operation, which most often sets up shop on public lands. The offense is considered a misdemeanor.

But once water is taken, that’s a whole other matter. The offense becomes a felony statewide. The Napa County Sheriff’s Department has cracked down on five operations this year in which the grower has trespassed onto public lands and stolen water, according to the detective. Sometimes the thief will tap into water lines on private land, citing cases in which the water used to irrigate vineyards is diverted to the illegal operation without the winery even knowing it, the detective mentioned.

Sonoma County has seen the same crime.

“It’s not uncommon for them to run lines up to people’s water tanks,” Sonoma County Sheriff’s Lt. Jason Lucas said, adding the cases set off in the “wilderness” gain little attention. “We’re just not hearing about it.”

This is of course until someone pulls the trigger. Many hikers in the “Emerald Triangle” are advised not to venture off trail into the woods. In Humboldt County, growers have set bear traps.

“Do we know it’s happening? Sure,” Lucas said.

To what degree remains a mystery.

“The problem has been widespread and consistent if not a little greater over several years,” Mendocino County Sheriff’s Sgt. Greg Van Patten told the Business Journal. “But we’re really feeling the effects of it because of our drought situation.”

Van Patten agreed with his neighboring detective, insisting there are “no big consequences” for those to stop growing illegally.

“This is the direct result of our (cannabis) laws,” Van Patten said.

A drought emergency was recently declared in Van Patten’s jurisdiction.

The Sonoma Coast State Park suspects are facing a slew of violations involving health and safety as well as penal codes. The environmental hazards will often prompt California Fish and Wildlife to bring in the state Water Resources Control Board to help clamp down on violators and restore watersheds.

“(Fish and Wildlife) support the regulated cannabis market and those taking steps to be compliant,” said Jeremy Valverde, the agency’s cannabis program director. “(The) permitting process is designed to reduce environmental impacts, which is more critical than ever, given the drought-like conditions throughout the state.”

County approval and an active state license are required to plant, grow, harvest, dry, cure, grade or trim cannabis.

The entire situation puts a green stain on the legal operations that pay state and federal taxes, while being forced to charge higher prices than the clandestine growers who undercut them.

“What we have learned about the illicit market is they’re from out of town, out of state and out of the country,” International Cannabis Farmers Association spokesman Sam Rodriguez told the Business Journal.

Rodriguez gripes the illegal growers only give the ones playing by the rules a bad name.

“It’s generated by greed. We need the full weight of law enforcement to come down on them,” he said. “Every (legalized) community has legitimate growers. But there’s always a tendency to use one brush to paint the industry. That’s the part that hurts.”

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, biotech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, now a part of the Union Tribune in San Diego County, along with the Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

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