Daily Journal Columns/January 28, 2018/Jim Shields
Water districts throughout five critical watersheds were put on notice last week by the State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) that, “Through a coordinated effort between the Water Board and California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, the following five priority stream systems have been identified as a starting point for the California Water Action Plan (WAP) effort:
- South Fork Eel River, tributary to the Eel River, Humboldt and Mendocino Counties
- Shasta River, tributary to the Klamath River, Siskiyou County
- Mark West Creek, tributary to the Russian River, Sonoma County
- Mill Creek, tributary to the Sacramento River, Shasta and Tehama Counties
- Ventura River, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties”
You probably don’t need me to explain to you that these five watershed systems are the primary regions of the state where cannabis is grown.
Here’s how the Water Board explains it:
“The Water Board and CDFW are currently working to identify potential actions that may be taken to enhance and establish instream flow for anadromous fish in these five priority streams and other streams of importance for the WAP objectives. The development of hydrologic characterization models is one of the first efforts that the Water Board will work on to better understand water supply, water demand, and instream flow needs in the priority watersheds… In recent years, flows have been decreasing due to extended dry periods in winter and early spring, as well as increases in legal and illegal water diversions. There are many surface diversions and groundwater wells associated with rural residences, Cannabis culitivation, pastures, crops, and municipal water systems. Since the legalization of Cannabis, cultivation of the crop has expanded dramatically in the basin, and is associated with increased water diversions.”
Honing in on the North Coast, the Water Board cites a study by NOAA Fisheries regarding water consumption by cultivators: “Mendocino and Humboldt Counties are home to some of the largest Cannabis growing operations in California, which have been increasing in number and scale during recent years. The consumptive demand for Cannabis farms impact summer stream flows during low-flow periods. This altered hydrologic function is one of the most critical stressor for juvenile salmonoids in the South Fork Eel River watershed, particularly in more urbanized areas such as the Salmon Creek and Redwood Creek watersheds where Cannabis cultivation coincides with domestic usage.
In a previous column, I warned folks that the Water Board is in the process of basically “locking down” watersheds by restricting how much marijuana can be grown on a sustainable basis, watershed by watershed. It appears the Water Board is moving in the direction of establishing a cap on licenses and permits based on watershed sustainability That’s why they are requiring water districts, including the one I manage, to provide them with all this hydrological data.
Erin Ragazzi, an assistant deputy director for the State Water Board’s Division of Water Rights and Water Quality Certification, said in a Water Deeply interview, “Well, I think one of the things that’s important to point out is that the policy creates a comprehensive mechanism to regulate cannabis cultivation, and it includes both those water supply, water rights side and water quality components. Specifically, I think it’s important to note we have a lot of important requirements to address individual and cumulative impacts that can occur in watersheds, and that’s been a big concern for a lot of folks, in terms of not just the site-specific impacts but the broader cumulative impacts in a watershed.
“To that end, that policy includes requirements establishing maximum diversion rate, a forbearance period when no diversions can occur and instream flow requirements so that even when you’re in the season of diversion, you can always divert when flows are above that instream flow requirement. So there’s a pretty comprehensive look at ensuring that we’re not seeing the impacts associated with diversion and use of water, while at the same time allowing folks a pathway to get a storage water right, which often would take a very long period of time … There’s the potential to have a limited number of plant identifiers and licenses issued by the various entities, and so those folks that come forward earlier are going to be in a better position than folks that may stand on the sidelines and wait for a while.”
I think that’s a pretty strong message to cultivators, but you have to wonder if any of them are listening, or even care.