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Point of No Return? 

With the Green Rush and the drought colliding this summer, is it too late to save Humboldt's watersheds?

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As the golden state turns brown, there's a debate raging, pitting fishermen against ranchers, farmers against environmental groups and Sacramento bureaucrats against rural landowners throughout the state. With a state snowpack that's just a fraction of normal levels, the magnitude of our current drought is finally hitting home. Meanwhile, in Humboldt County, known for its towering redwoods, gushing rivers and lush pastures, a perfect storm is hitting shore.

It's July 2 and about 18 officials are sitting in a meeting with North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman in the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office Conference Room. The officials — cops, biologists, politicians and U.S. Forest Service employees — are talking about the proliferation of marijuana grows throughout Humboldt County and beyond, and many are expressing frustration about how little they can do in the face of the epidemic.

In many ways, the conversation mirrors one held about a year ago with most of the same stakeholders. Law enforcement officials bemoan the lack of resources they say leaves them battling a proverbial firestorm with a garden hose. Sheriff Mike Downey points out that in 2013, his office identified more than 4,000 large-scale outdoor marijuana grows in the county but only had the resources to eradicate 92 of them. Wildlife biologist Mourad Gabriel says he and partners are left to pull together grant monies to try to clean up the busted grows, explaining how they used seven grants last year to clean up just five sites. Meanwhile, Gabriel says, mortality rates in threatened Pacific fisher populations are increasing as the weasel-like animals are being poisoned by rodenticides left behind by growers. "These trends are not dissipating," he says. "They're accelerating."

But, this year, there's a different tone and an old concern made freshly urgent. The group is meeting as the State Water Resources Control Board is sending notices to 17 water rights holders — including ranchers, cities and community services districts — along the Eel River, and seven more along the Van Duzen, notifying them their water rights are being suspended. Meanwhile, unpermitted water diversions to irrigate pot gardens are unchecked throughout the county.

"How outrageous is it that the city of Rio Dell is getting a curtailment order while you have people all through this area stealing water from campgrounds, streams, schools and facilities," Huffman asks. Downey chimes in: "I'm super concerned about the drought," he says. "This year could be catastrophic."

And even a glance at the data tells us Downey could be right. Right now, in early July, flows on the Van Duzen River near Bridgeville are lower than they have ever been, according to the United States Geological Survey. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's station on Woodley Island, meanwhile, just recorded the third driest water year on record for Eureka. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence indicates there are likely more growers in the hills this year and that many are planting larger gardens, looking for big paydays as the industry crumbles beneath them, with retail marijuana prices plummeting and the state bracing for legalization.

Humboldt County 1st District Supervisor Rex Bohn, a former raw minerals locator for FoxFarm Soil and Fertilizer Co., says fertilizer sales are up 20 percent in the county. "The hills are blown out this year."

Scott Bauer, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, never set out to study marijuana cultivation, his actual job being formulating and implementing recovery plans for Coho salmon populations. But in 2009, Bauer was called to help law enforcement officials assess the damage done by a large grow site where outlaw farmers had used a backhoe to carve a road into a hillside. It was at that site that Bauer said he noticed a large-scale water diversion, with pumps pulling water from a stream up the hillside to a marijuana garden, for the first time.

"Then, in 2010, we started seeing diversions everywhere," Bauer said. After a particularly wet winter, Bauer said he was monitoring flows on the Van Duzen River the following summer, in 2011, and was shocked to see flows dive below average levels in July and August. "I thought, 'Why the hell would they do that?'" When Google released its new and improved satellite imagery in 2012, Bauer and the folks at Fish and Wildlife decided to map some watersheds. They found clusters of hundreds of marijuana gardens in the four watersheds surveyed, each with plant counts in the tens of thousands.

They did some admittedly crude math, based on the Humboldt Grower's Association's estimate that mature plants each use up to 6 gallons of water per day. The Fish and Wildlife scientists found that during seven-day low flows — or the seven days of the year when stream flows are at their lowest, usually in mid-September — gardens in three of the four watersheds examined could consume more than 100 percent of the available water. "In a lot of these watersheds, nobody has a permitted diversion," Bauer said.

Bauer and Fish and Wildlife caught a lot of flak from growers for their survey. Some say the 6-gallon-a-day figure is a gross overestimation, and others point out that the survey assumes no growers are utilizing best practices and diverting water during wet, winter months to store and use when stream flows dwindle in the summer. Bauer conceded those points may be true, but is quick to point out that Fish and Wildlife personnel saw first-hand impacts in the summer of 2013. "What we found last year is creeks going dry," he said. And that was after a water year in which the region got about 75 percent of its annual rain fall. In this past year, in the throes of drought, the parched region recorded just more than 50 percent of its 30-year average rainfall. "It's the perfect storm," Bauer said.

And Bauer is fairly convinced that if he were to conduct the survey over again, he'd only find more gardens with more plants. "Every grow site we went to in 2013 was either new, or had gotten bigger [than the year before]," he said, adding that this year he's hearing cultivation along State Route 36 is beyond anything residents out there have seen. "Everyone said, 'I thought 2013 was the peak. I can't believe it, but this year it's even bigger.' That's the story everywhere. ... It's just gotten so big."

Law enforcement agrees. Humboldt County Sheriff's Office Lt. Wayne Hanson recently told the Times-Standard he estimates there are 5,000 large-scale outdoor marijuana gardens in the county this year, which would represent a 25-percent increase from what the agency reported identifying last year. During the meeting with Huffman, Mike Minton, acting forest supervisor for Six Rivers National Forest, said his agency is seeing a big increase in the amount of commercial traffic on forest service roads, especially "huge increases in the volume of commercial water trucks."

Bauer said — in July — he's already getting calls and emails weekly from folks reporting that their streams have dried up. "I can't imagine what August is going to look like," he said.

If there was one concern Yurok Tribe Vice Chair Sue Masten urgently wanted to convey to Huffman at the recent meeting, it was that water is in short supply around the Klamath River. She said tribal members living on ranches in the upper basin depend on creeks for their water, but the creeks are going dry, she said, due to an explosion of grows in the area. "We are extremely concerned over these water diversions," she said. The problem has gotten so severe, Masten said, that the tribe considered trucking water in for its members. "It was too expensive," she said.

But it looks like some growers are turning to trucking water in to irrigate their crops. J&T Logging has an ad posted on Craigslist offering to truck water — 3,000 gallons at a time purchased at a bulk rate from the Humboldt Community Services District — anywhere in the tri-county area. The company's water truck is a new addition this year, purchased after owner Tamara Daniels saw the drought coming. During the recent meeting with Huffman, Bohn informed the congressman's field rep that 31 water trucks were built in the county this year, causing Huffman to muse: "The sophistication of this enterprise is astounding."

Despite J&T Logging's urgings on Craigslist to "get your water legally!" many fear growers will turn to theft rather than watch their crops wither. Last year, thousands of gallons of water were stolen from fire hydrants in the Myers Flat area, from spigots in Weott and from a storage tank at Bridgeville Elementary School. Minton told Huffman his department is constantly worried about theft, adding that his engineering department has had to get creative to make sure water supplies to forest campsites, offices and facilities are protected. Hoopa Wildlife Biologist Mark Higley said he's concerned some water trucks may be filling up directly from local rivers.

Sitting behind his desk at the Fish and Wildlife offices on Second Street in Eureka, Bauer stressed that he simply wants folks to come into compliance and get their water diversions permitted. "We do a lot of outreach because we want people to work with us," he said. "We don't care what they're growing, we want people to come in and get permits and conserve and protect our public trust waterways." But despite the agency's best efforts, Bauer said water diversion permit applications have remained completely stagnant. "I get a few calls a month asking questions but I never see those people come in," he said.

Hollie Hall, who has a Ph.D. in the adaptive management of watersheds and recently started a consulting business, said there are lots of reasons folks in rural Humboldt County don't want to go through the process. "There are people who find becoming compliant a complete invasion of privacy," she said. "What I've noticed is that every step of the way, the paperwork and the process leaves the door open for someone to come onto your land." But Hall said some folks who've never had the proper permits are now approaching her reluctantly, looking for help securing rights to use water from streams running through their property. While Hall sees plenty of problems with the current system, she says getting the appropriate water diversion permits is important. "By community members becoming legally compliant with our water diversion, they're really helping to protect our water resources. ... It's important that we all pay attention and engage in our water rights right now because everywhere we look, people are coming with their straws looking to take them away."

At the July 2 meeting, Huffman heard plenty of impassioned pleas for additional funding and resources and a host of examples as to why the current state of marijuana prohibition is untenable. As Downey said, "This Band Aid approach isn't working." While the congressman said repeatedly that he empathized with the situation those in the room were facing, he also made clear he had no "silver bullet" solutions. Ultimately, he said, national legalization or decriminalization of marijuana is the only answer and that remains years away. When it comes to the situation in the hills this summer, there's little aid on the horizon.

The congressman and others pointed to some additional funding allocated by Gov. Jerry Brown to help the Water Board and Fish and Wildlife go after illegal diverters. Others mentioned Senate Bill 861, which gives Fish and Wildlife the power to issue civil diversion penalties administratively, rather than through the court system, the hope being that swift, decisive penalties might curtail some of the illegal diversions. But, in reality, the wheels of this growing season are set in motion and it appears there is little to slow them down. It's unlikely that torrential downpours will show up to increase flows on the Van Duzen River, which was flowing at just 11 cubic feet per second on July 7 — well below the historic low of 16 cubic feet per second recorded in 1977 — or on any of the region's other rivers, all of which are flowing well below normal, according to the USGS.

Bauer said it's also important to remember that this collision course between Humboldt County's green rush and the drought is playing out at a time when local salmon populations appear on the rise, rebounding after years and millions of dollars of restoration efforts. Bauer said his department was beginning to see results from years spent decommissioning old logging roads to keep sediment out of watersheds and improving salmon spawning habitats. "We're doing our best to restore things, but without water there's no fish," Bauer said, predicting creeks that have never dried before will dry up this summer.

Coho salmon have a three-year life cycle, Bauer said, meaning that population impacts aren't felt for several years. That lag time, Bauer said, makes it very difficult to ascertain what damage is being done before it's too late: before spawning streams are gone, fish populations drop to the point where "you have brothers and sisters mating" and a whole species is thrown off course.

"That's the thing that keeps me up at night," Bauer said. "At what point do we reach that critical mass? At what point do we reach the point of no return?"

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