Ecological Impact of Growing Marijuana

Since 1996, California law has allowed cannabis to be cultivated for medical use, but in 2014, the Yurok Tribe embarked on a mission to eliminate it altogether from the reservation. The main reason was water: The drought in California, then in its third year, had dried up domestic water sources and drained the Klamath to such low levels that the salmon population, on which the tribe has long depended, had come to the brink of collapse. Yurok tribal authorities believed marijuana growers were contributing to the crisis by drawing water from Klamath tributaries to irrigate their plants. That summer, the tribe launched Operation Yurok, a sweeping series of raids that enlisted the California National Guard. Since then, the region has become a paradoxical battleground—as many states across the country move to legalize marijuana, authorities in Humboldt County, a place renowned since the 60s for pot, are helping to eradicate it. The tribe’s water supply, I had been told, depended on this.

Cannabis farming in California’s Emerald Triangle has doubled since 2009, depleting streams, destroying habitat and posing a lethal risk to fish and wildlife amidst a devastating drought. Is there a greener way to grow weed?

A few days earlier, to understand how dire the situation had become, I had accompanied Carlton Gibbens, a tribe member, as he delivered bottled water to residents. The day was hot and the car’s air conditioner broken, and when we turned onto Highway 169, Gibbens’s temples were beaded with sweat. The road, a single lane, wound through thick, young forest and opened now and then onto the Klamath, a steely chasm edged with green. Though it was only the beginning of summer, I could see that the drought had taken a toll. The river looked sunken into its bones. Rocks stuck out where normally there were rapids, and algae bloomed in the languid pools. (Scientists suspect these blooms are due, in part, to contamination from marijuana fertilizers.) According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the river was running dangerously low, and if it dropped lower, scientists warned, salmon would seek refuge from the warm shallows in the cool but crowded mouths of tributaries. There, they would rub together and spread deadly parasites. A fish kill would be devastating for the tribe. This people knew, because it had happened before.

Gibbens is a survey technician, but like many tribal employees, his days are filled with “other duties as assigned.” Two days a week, he delivers water to homes not connected to community tanks—that is, the majority of them. Since these residents pipe their water directly from springs and creeks, they are more vulnerable to running out. Two summers ago, many creeks dried up, and residents had to haul water from an emergency tank in Weitchpec. Though the drought was mostly to blame, so, too, were pot growers, who Yurok tribal authorities claim are the biggest users of water on the reservation. To irrigate their plants, growers pipe water from the same Klamath tributaries that supply reservation homes and provide refuge for fish, often damming and diverting whole creeks. Without a permit, these significant diversions are illegal, which is one justification for the raids. The tribe estimates that 100,000 marijuana plants grow on the reservation over the course of a year. A single plant, according to government documents, consumes up to six gallons of water a day. Each year, millions of gallons that would otherwise flow through the reservation go, quite literally, up in smoke.

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