Protecting Watersheds Needs to be First Priority in Pot Ordinance

August, 2015

Of all the serious environmental issues we face in our region, promoting meaningful marijuana policy and action is one of the most significant local issues that we have a real chance of influencing before it gets even worse. Policy makers on the North Coast and throughout California are working to fill regulatory holes left after passage of Proposition 215 while also preparing for the anticipated legalization of recreational weed in 2016. The impacts relating to an unchecked industry that is fragmenting forests, tapping watersheds dry and expanding every year have been previously discussed in EcoNews. Current legislation will have an impact—for better or for worse—on our region’s burgeoning cannabis industry.

In advance of legalization, several bills are making their way through the state legislature with the aim to put in place a functional regulatory framework for medical marijuana while supporting responsible cannabis businesses. Current frontrunners in this field are AB 243, AB 266 and SB 643. After summer recess in early August, lawmakers will have three weeks to get bills through appropriations committees and onto Governor Brown’s desk by October 11 for signature or veto.  

After summer recess in early August, lawmakers will have three weeks to get bills through appropriations committees and onto Governor Brown’s desk by October 11 for signature or veto.

Assembly Bill 243—Indoor and Outdoor Medical Cannabis Cultivation (introduced by North Coast Assemblymember Jim Wood) would authorize local oversight of commercial cultivation and generate revenue by imposing a tax that would be directed to fund program oversight, law enforcement, environmental oversight, and habitat restoration.

Assembly Bill 266—Medical Cannabis Regulation and Licensing (introduced by Assemblymember Rob Bonta) would establish the Governor’s Office of Medical Cannabis Regulation to coordinate and provide oversight of the licensing and regulation of various commercial cannabis activities. The bill would also establish the Division of Medical Cannabis Regulation within the State Board of Equalization, to license and regulate medical cannabis operations.

Senate Bill 643—Medical Cannabis Regulation (introduced by North Coast State Senator Mike McGuire) would establish the Office of Medical Marijuana Regulation within the Bureau of Business, Consumer Services, and Housing Agency and would require the bureau office to license and regulate dispensing facilities, cultivation sites, transporters, and manufacturers of medical marijuana and medical marijuana products, subject to local ordinances.

On the regional stage, Trinity County community members have come out in force to urge their Supervisors to enforce the County’s existing marijuana cultivation guidelines to stem the expansion of large-scale grows. Meanwhile, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors continues to defer to industry group California Cannabis Voice Humboldt (CCVH) to write their own land use ordinance guiding cultivation on rural parcels larger than five acres.

CCVH Ordinance—Digging deeper

On June 30, 2015, CCVH unveiled their seventh draft cannabis cultivation land use ordinance. Despite having nearly a year and six drafts to incorporate concerns from environmental advocates and other concerned members of the public, CCVH’s leadership has instead retained core components that will perpetuate irresponsible, large-scale grows at the expense of healthy rivers, forests and communities.

• All grows must be held to standards that protect North Coast streams and salmon.
Unfortunately, the CCVH draft does nothing to stop water withdrawals from streams during times when fish and downstream residents need water most. Any proposal that moves forward must ensure that operations are either connected to a stable municipal water supply or have enough water storage to meet 100 percent of the dry-season irrigation needs without withdrawing from waterways during summer months when stream flows are low. Further, any ordinance needs to make clear that cultivators cannot be reliant on water trucking—an unsustainable loophole in the existing draft.

• Conversion of forestland to commercial marijuana production must stop.
CCVH’s draft gives a free pass to commercial cannabis grows on forestlands and  provides a pathway for other landowners to clearcut forests—thereby fragmenting wildlife habitat—to make way for even more large-scale grows. The timber industry has done tremendous damage to our forests and watersheds for decades; clearing hillsides and building more roads will only exacerbate the problems.

• Watershed carrying capacity needs to be addressed.
CCVH’s draft does nothing to address the cumulative impacts of cultivation activities within a watershed. As a whole, existing operations—including public land trespass grows and irresponsible grows on private property—are resulting in unacceptable impacts to waterways, wildlife and downstream communities. New commercial grows should not be permitted until each watershed has been assessed and all cultivation activities are in compliance with
environmental regulations.

• The use of pesticides and herbicides must be prohibited.
CCVH’s draft allows for use and onsite storage of pesticides. Current practices allow growers to determine what pesticides are used—a health risk for wildlife and humans alike. Pesticide use should be explicitly prohibited.

• A sustainable revenue source is needed to ensure adequate enforcement.
CCVH’s land use ordinance suggests an unrealistic fee structure that would fall far short of the sum needed to run the program itself, much less to support the enforcement that will be needed to get a handle on the environmental damage from existing water diversions and sedimentation from unregulated roads and clearings.

• Support sustainable, small-scale cannabis cultivators and take a firm stand against irresponsible grows that are doing harm.
 CCVH’s draft allows an unlimited number of permitted grows over 10,000 square feet. The draft also allows existing grows up to 10,000 sq ft canopy size (potentially over two acres of cultivated area) to continue with no environmental impact review. Due to the high market value of marijuana, allowing operations of this size and larger would effectively be a green light for mega-grows on over 14,000 parcels throughout the county. Our watersheds are already under severe strain from past logging practices and ongoing extreme drought. If there is to be a future for our region’s salmon—and a truly sustainable cannabis industry—irresponsible grows must be reined in.