Trying to cultivate respect for water regulations among pot growers

Program aims to have environmental regulators treat marijuana growers on private land like any other sector

The parking lot at the golf course began filling by evening — a procession of raised trucks coated in backcountry dust, an aging red Honda with a "Forever Stoked" bumper sticker.

But the 150 or so visitors hadn't come to this Humboldt County hill town to play a round. They were marijuana growers, seeking to learn how to do the right thing for watersheds increasingly strained by the state's epic drought.

Pamphlets on best practices to achieve sustainability in the "green rush" and primers on registering water rights covered a table inside the bar.

The event was organized by California Cannabis Voice Humboldt, the 600-member affiliate of a statewide political action committee formed last year. The theme: stepping out of the shadows to get regulated.

"I've lived my whole life an outlaw, and I'm not going to die an outlaw," Patrick Murphy, a bearded, 38-year-old cultivator who serves as the group's co-director of community outreach, told the crowd. "I'm going to die a farmer, a proud farmer, a farmer of cannabis."

The celebratory pig roast last month, where growers and non-growers mingled with local politicians, comes as a transformation of sorts sweeps cannabis country.

Marijuana cultivation is illegal under federal law and only narrowly permitted under state medical marijuana law. With as many as 30,000 grow sites in the state's northern counties, selective criminal enforcement has long taken place, and that is not expected to change.

But state regulators and local officials in the Emerald Triangle acknowledge that the old way of doing things — which often paired environmental inspection with criminal enforcement — has not yielded good results. Instilling fear in growers, they say, has done little to encourage them to follow sound environmental practices.

The concerns include silt runoff from poorly maintained roads and stream crossings, improper use of fertilizers and pesticides, illegal water diversions and inadequate water storage.

The new approach comes as drought threatens the endangered Coho salmon and steelhead trout, lawmakers weigh a flurry of proposals to regulate medical marijuana, and the question of legalizing recreational pot use is expected to make it onto the November 2016 ballot.

The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is poised to adopt a program that would require all marijuana cultivators to register, pay a fee, follow strict environmental guidelines and seek appropriate permits from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Prompted by Gov. Jerry Brown, it is believed to be the first effort of its kind in the nation aimed at ensuring that marijuana growers on private land are treated like any other sector by environmental regulators, regardless of the legality of their crop.

The goal is to bring growers into the fold with collaboration and incentives and not rely solely on enforcement once the damage is done.

Many Humboldt County growers surely will refuse to comply. Some are outsiders from as far afield as Bulgaria who care little for the environment or their neighbors. Others have lived through decades of criminal busts and eradication campaigns and hold fast to their suspicions of government.

But a surprising number of growers are coming aboard, filing for permits with state water and fish and wildlife agencies — and anticipating a day when the black-market dollars that now flood the county will be legitimate.

It's a day, Murphy imagined for the gathered crowd, when boutique Humboldt County bud branded as "fish-friendly" will make it to market — and schools and government programs will be flush with tax revenues from the newly legal sales.

Come legalization, he added, that might just keep big money interests from squeezing out thousands of Humboldt pot farmers known for the quality product they have long produced.

"It's time for us to show the rest of the community who we are," Murphy said. "We're your friends, we're your neighbors, and given the chance we can be the best contributing members of this community."

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The drought has added urgency to the regulatory push.

Research by the state Fish and Wildlife Department released in March found that demand by marijuana-growing operations, estimated in gallons needed per plant, had overwhelmed available water supplies in three of four watersheds in Humboldt County. Streams had run dry, placing certain threatened fish and amphibians at risk.

"We already are exceeding the capacity of our fisheries and a big, big piece of that is drought," said Scott Greacen, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Eel River. "But it's only in drought that you see what the limits of the watershed are. We're there. Big time."

Complaints about grows began to surge five years ago, said Matt St. John, executive officer of the North Coast water board. Inspections along with demands for corrective action and penalties followed. Fish and Wildlife was doing the same. But the problem demanded a broader, coordinated solution.

Brown took interest, and a pilot project was born, going into effect last summer. The Legislature has funded it through June 2017, though the Marijuana Watershed Protection Act written by Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) would expand it and make it permanent.

It calls on the agencies to work together, educate growers and coordinate enforcement actions that focus on bringing cultivators into environmental compliance.

The centerpiece is the sweeping regulatory program now under consideration by the water board. A vote is scheduled for August.

"I think we're all aware that this is something completely different than anything we have ever done before," board member William Massey said at a recent meeting. "We don't care if it's pot or pineapples [being grown]. It's what it does to water quality."

In addition to registering and meeting water-quality standards, growers would have to store enough water in the winter to last from May 15 through Oct. 31, when they would be barred from tapping streams.

The Fish and Wildlife Department, meanwhile, already has seen a jump in requests for permits as they participate in joint enforcement actions with water board counterparts.

Of 14 sites visited in January in the Eel River watershed's Sproul Creek, which has run dry the last two years, 90% of those targeted have since applied, said Scott Bauer, a senior environmental scientist for the Fish and Wildlife Department.

"Last year we could count them on one hand," Bauer said. "This year there are constant calls."

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Key to the program's success are outside watershed experts and civil engineers who are authorized to serve as intermediaries, crafting water resource protection plans and carrying out needed mitigation.

Including them, St. John said, puts more "eyes on the ground," and far more growers are likely to comply if they don't have to invite government inspectors onto their land.

Praj White, 42, is a civil engineer who grew up in Humboldt's hills and watched the weed industry bloom with "hippie redneck open farms," burrow underground during years of heavy enforcement, and now begin to "unfold back into the daylight."

The clients he visits have ranged from "fairly compliant," he said, to newcomers who "rented a bulldozer, found some area best suited to sun" and proceeded to violate a host of stream and wildlife protection regulations.

On a recent day, White met an old-time grower in the Van Duzen watershed. Two of his neighbors also showed up wanting evaluations and by midday "two other trucks came and joined us."

Greacen worried that the growers willing to comply represent "only a fraction of the real industry," and that agencies will never raise the needed dollars through fees to properly enforce the myriad sites.

The environmental advocate is proposing that the water board cap all but the smallest tier of grows by watershed, compelling cultivators to work together to "fix the stuff you have collectively wrecked" before granting additional permits.

But White believes that if a certified "salmon safe" product can be tracked from farm to a legal marketplace, the good actors will begin to turn in the bad.

More than two years ago, Murphy invited environmental regulators onto his land to line up permits for an operation that would defy stereotypes of growers as "eco-terrorists" — one with roads that don't crumble into streams and enough stored water to get through drought-stricken summers.

The duo has since been working to craft a county cannabis land use ordinance for parcels larger than five acres. In April, their group hosted State Board of Equalization members Fiona Ma and George Runner — who together represent 53 of California's 58 counties — to talk taxation.

"We're craving not just regulation but above-ground benefits like crop insurance, legal routes of sale, tax ID numbers," Murphy said.

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At the Willow Creek event, cultivators used to hiding behind locked gates chatted with watershed experts about how to build up their soil to prevent nutrient leaching, properly store rainwater and protect juvenile salmon.

"It's fascinating and terrifying," said Terra Joy Carver, 31, who heads the grower group's women's alliance and until a few months ago had never told a stranger what she did for a living. "Yet Colorado and Washington are about to tell us how to do this, and take away our whole heritage. If we don't stand up for who we are, we will lose it, and it's not just our livelihood, it's our entire community."

Carver has persuaded 150 women to sign on and is organizing trainings on business plans, branding and marketing. In April, she helped build the California Cannabis Voice Humboldt float for the Yes We Cann! parade at Humboldt's Cannifest — in blazing green.

It was, she said, "like our pride parade."

lee.romney@latimes.com
Twitter: @leeromney

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