Agriculture

Friday, February 2, 2024

Humboldt Cannabis Grower to Pay $750,000 for Violating State Water, Wildlife Regulations

Posted By on Fri, Feb 2, 2024 at 10:48 AM

The settlement includes a record penalty for a water rights violation in California. - FILE
  • File
  • The settlement includes a record penalty for a water rights violation in California.
A Humboldt County cannabis grower has agreed to pay $750,000, remove unpermitted ponds and restore streams and wetlands after state officials accused him of  violating regulations protecting water supplies, wildlife and waterways.

Of the total, $500,000 is a record penalty for a water rights violation in California. State officials say the violations by Joshua Sweet and the companies he owns and manages, Shadow Light Ranch, LLC and The Hills, LLC, continued for years and were “egregious,” damaging wetlands and other resources. 

Under the settlement, Sweet will have to pay an additional $1 million if the remediation work outlined is not completed.

In a statement to CalMatters, Sweet said, “If the full penalty and remediation costs were due today it would take everything I own.”

“Although I will follow through with my end of the settlement, I do not believe this is fair or just, and I believe I have already suffered way too much,” Sweet, a licensed cannabis cultivator, said in the emailed statement. 

“Even during our court-mandated settlement conference, they were asked why they would go after a small independent businessman with these type of enormous fines usually reserved for huge corporations that destroy ecosystems.”

In the settlement, Sweet agreed that “developing the properties in Humboldt County … resulted in violations of the California Fish and Game Code and the California water Code.” 

“Although I will follow through with my end of the settlement, I do not believe this is fair or just, and I believe I have already suffered way too much.”

Joshua Sweet, Humboldt County cannabis owner

The companies’ 435 acres of land are part of the Emerald Triangle, where cannabis reigns. Springs and streams of the Bear Canyon Creek Watershed cross the land and eventually drain into the South Fork Eel River — a wild and scenic river that provides critical habitat for threatened and endangered species of steelhead, Chinook and coho salmon. 

The settlement comes as the cannabis industry is still trying to find its footing after legalization, and as its water use, especially for illegal cannabis operations, becomes increasingly contentious.

The agreement, approved by the Humboldt County Superior Court and announced last week, is the culmination of years of inspections by state water and wildlife officials dating back to 2016, according to the timeline outlined in the initial complaint

It “resolves violations … that include: the owner’s destruction of wetland habitat and stream channels; conversion of oak woodland to grow cannabis; and failure to … satisfy permitting requirements,” the state’s announcement of the deal said.

Yvonne West, director of the State Water Resources Control Board’s office of enforcement, said Sweet didn’t have authorization to divert water to the reservoirs and use it. Between 2017 and 2020, Sweet took about 16.2 acre-feet of water for three ponds, according to an email from the water board — approximately enough to supply about 49 households for a year. 

“The ordered penalties are modest given the scope of damage, the length of time the site has been left unremediated and considering the unjust enrichment or benefit to Mr. Sweet from running a business for several years without going through the necessary permitting process,” said Jeremy Valverde, assistant chief counsel at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in an emailed statement. 

Sweet and his businesses “for years resisted our attempts to cooperatively work on restoration and recovery of those resources, leaving formal enforcement as our only option,” said Joshua Curtis, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board’s assistant executive officer.

Sweet said, though, that the case didn’t have to play out like it did. “Offers were made and denied,” he said. “There would be no settlement without their need to ‘make an example of me first’.”

The size of the penalty is notable because the water board has limited powers to enforce California’s arcane water rights system. A weeklong standoff during a drought, when ranchers pumped more than half of the Shasta River’s water in violation of state orders, netted a $500 per day fine that reached $4,000, or roughly $50 per rancher. 

“The ordered penalties are modest given the scope of damage, the length of time…and considering the unjust enrichment or benefit to Mr. Sweet from running a business for several years.”

Jeremy Valverde, California Department of Fish and Wildlife

State lawmakers floated a bill last year that could triple the fines for water rights violations, though the bill has thus far stalled. And in 2022, a new law enhanced penalties for cannabis-related violations to $3,500 per day, though this took effect after then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed the complaint. 

“This was an ongoing use by Mr. Sweet and the penalties are over an approximately four-year period for unauthorized diversion and use of water to support cultivation,” West said. “Five hundred dollars a day, multiple violations over a four-year period, does really add up. And then again we did have the additional types of violations at play here as well.”

The cannabis operation’s complex irrigation system came to state officials’ attention after Sweet notified the Department of Fish and Wildlife of plans to further develop the property in 2015, the 2020 complaint said.  

Over the years, inspections by state agencies turned up “violations … for unlawful alteration of the bed, channel, or bank of a stream and … unlawful sediment discharge into waters,” the complaint said. They also turned up storage tanks and three storage ponds, two of which predated his ownership and one that, according to the complaint, Sweet had constructed despite the warning that it needed a permit. 

The pond was in a location that “disturbs/inundates wetlands with a direct hydrologic connection and discharge to a … tributary to the South Fork Eel River,” the complaint says. “Additionally, the Property’s other ponds, multiple illegal stream crossings, and road-associated landslide discharge or threaten to discharge to unnamed tributaries of the South Fork Eel River.” 

The pond is one of the reasons state officials considered the case egregious, West said. “We didn’t have the opportunity to review and catalog the status of that wetland or the benefits of that wetland before it was destroyed.” 

Sweet, the grower, said the lengthy process “has caused so much undue and unnecessary strain, pain, and suffering on me and my health, my family, my friends, and this community.”

“I thought what I was following the law and had hired the proper professional team to abide by the myriad of requirements,” Sweet added. “My suffering does not end, and I will continue to struggle for the foreseeable future. Which is, I guess, what they wanted.” 

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Tuesday, June 27, 2023

UPDATE: Earthquake Damage to Grandstands Jeopardizes Fate of Humboldt County Fair

Posted By on Tue, Jun 27, 2023 at 9:23 AM

    
UPDATE:

An emergency meeting of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday to discuss the earthquake-caused damage to the grandstands at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds and possible actions, including the county creating an agreement with a contractor and having them work directly with engineering firm KPFF, which conducted the structural assessment, to come up with a finalized plan.

The Humboldt County Fair Association is doing the same at 5 p.m. to discuss any updates from the earlier supervisors’ meeting.

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Speaking before the Board of Directors for the Humboldt County Fair Association last night, Tom Mattson, Humboldt County Director of Public Works, said the fairgrounds’ grandstands were unsafe to occupy and securing them in time for this year’s fair will cost an estimated $1 million dollars.

“I cannot recommend using the structure at this time,” said Mattson. “Our structural engineer says that the risk of an earthquake during that period of time is very low, but if there were to be one during the fair, it would be catastrophic.”

The annual fair is the association’s biggest revenue-generating event and also an economic driver for the region, pumping an estimated $5 million into the community, per HCFA Board president Andy Titus.

The news comes at a precarious financial time for the organization, which is still detangling the fallout of alleged embezzlement by its former bookkeeper, Nina Tafarella.

The case is under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation; no charges have been filed at this time.

Mattson told the board he met with a contractor to get an estimate on the price of a temporary fix and handed out diagrams of the proposed temporary seismic bracing. He added that due to labor shortages, the contractor was not certain they could finish before the fair, which kicks off on Aug. 17.

The announcement of the pricetag was met with palpable dismay by the board. The association currently has $628,317 in its accounts. According to its most recent income statements, expenditures have outstripped incoming revenue almost three to one. Mattson added that the shoring would be a “Band Aid,” not a permanent fix, and that while the repairs would qualify for reimbursement from the state Office of Emergency Services, OES would only reimburse for either the temporary fix or the permanent one, but not for both.

Interim CEO Jill Duffy asked if the county would be paying for the repairs as the fairgrounds are county property. “That’s a question for the county supervisors,” Mattson said. “It’s not in my budget, I can tell you that.”

HCFA Director Greg Gomes, who chairs the horseracing committee, asked if there was something “less than a Band Aid,” that would allow horseracing to continue without crowds in the stands. The California Horseracing Board is due to consider the fair’s license this Thursday, June 29.

Gomes added that the association was “running out of time,” to finalize races, with recruiting ongoing for horses. The races are a major draw to the fair, with attendees generating associated revenue in ticket and carnival as well as concessions sales.

“If we can’t do the horseracing, we might be lucky to get $1 million,” said Titus.

Mattson did not have an answer for Gomes on whether there was a less expensive fix that would allow the racing to go on. It was clarified that the rest of the fair could continue without fixing the stands, but they must be cordoned off.

Duffy added that they have also been vandalized recently, with people breaking monitors and leaving broken glass behind.

“Who is going to make the decision to make the temporary fix or not,” asked director Jack Rice. “That’s a political decision, not my decision,” said Mattson, referring again to the county Board of Supervisors. “But can you make a recommendation?”

“My recommendation would be to do the long-term fix,” said Mattson.

The supervisors are due to meet this morning. The association voted to authorize Titus to write a letter and ask for an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss repairs to the stands. Director Clint Duey volunteered to speak during public comment.

More information about the meeting will be in this week’s Enterprise, on stands Thursday.

Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that North Coast Journal Inc. has a contract with the Humboldt County Fair Association to promote this year's fair, as well as an upcoming event. The company's marketing department — which retains no editorial control — is fulfilling the contract.
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Friday, June 9, 2023

California Ranchers Intentionally Violated an Emergency Water Order. Now Lawmakers Want to Triple the Fines

Posted By on Fri, Jun 9, 2023 at 10:11 AM

A dried out stock pond on a Siskiyou County ranch on Aug. 29, 2022. - PHOTO BY MARTIN DO NASCIMENTO, CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
  • A dried out stock pond on a Siskiyou County ranch on Aug. 29, 2022.
When ranchers violated an emergency order to stop pumping water from the drought-plagued Shasta River last year, state officials fined them $4,000, or roughly $50 each. Now California legislators are weighing a bill that would triple fines for such infractions — and could allow the penalty to climb higher than a million dollars.

Authored by Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, a Democrat from San Ramon, the bill cleared the Assembly in a 43 to 20 vote last week and is now awaiting discussion in Senate committees.

The proposed legislation aims to give California’s water enforcers more muscle to act swiftly and levy larger penalties for water agencies, irrigation districts and landowners who violate state orders and policies by pumping from rivers and streams. 

Bauer-Kahan introduced AB 460 after CalMatters reported in November that the state had imposed minimal fines on about 80 Siskiyou County ranchers — served by the Shasta River Water Association — who had violated an emergency order to stop pumping. The river’s flows plunged by more than half, threatening ecosystems and rare fish such as salmon. 

Yet in a public demonstration of the state’s limited powers, the ranchers kept the pumps on for eight days. 

“Paying the fines was worth it to them to take what they took, and that shows a real weakness in what we have done,” Bauer-Kahan said. “It was so clear that our law was not working.”

The State Water Resources Control Board’s maximum fine under existing law is $500 per day. The state also can issue a cease and desist order, which carries maximum fines of $10,000 per day, but it requires a 20-day waiting period and allows the users to seek a public hearing. Such provisions allow the violations to continue for weeks.



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Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Mangoes and Agave in the Central Valley? California Farmers Try New Crops to Cope with Climate Change

Posted By on Wed, May 10, 2023 at 11:19 AM

Gary Gragg examines buds on one of the mango plants he's growing in the Sacramento Valley. - PHOTO BY RAHUL LAL, CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
  • Gary Gragg examines buds on one of the mango plants he's growing in the Sacramento Valley.
In a world of worsening heatwaves, flooding, drought, glacial melting, megafires and other calamities of a changing climate, Gary Gragg is an optimist.

As California warms, Gragg — a nurseryman, micro-scale farmer and tropical fruit enthusiast — looks forward to the day that he can grow and sell mangoes in Northern California. 

“I’ve been banking on this since I was 10 years old and first heard about global warming,” said Gragg, 54, who has planted several mango trees, among other subtropical trees, in his orchard about 25 miles west of Sacramento. 

Gragg’s little orchard might be the continent’s northernmost grove of mangoes, which normally are grown in places like Florida, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. 

Northern California’s climate, he said, is becoming increasingly suitable for heat-loving, frost-sensitive mango trees, as well as avocados, cherimoyas and tropical palms, a specialty of his plant nursery Golden Gate Palms

“Climate change isn’t all bad,” Gragg said. “People almost never talk about the positives of global warming, but there will be winners and losers everywhere.”

Mangoes may never become a mainstream crop in the northern half of California, but change is undoubtedly coming. Hustling to adapt, farmers around the state are experimenting with new, more sustainable crops and varieties bred to better tolerate drought, heat, humidity and other elements of the increasingly unruly climate.

In the Central Valley, farmers are investing in avocados, which are traditionally planted farther south, and agave, a drought-resistant succulent grown in Mexico to make tequila.

In Santa Cruz, one grower is trying a tropical exotic, lucuma, that is native to South American regions with mild winters. Others are growing tropical dragonfruit from the Central Coast down to San Diego.

Some Sonoma and Napa Valley wineries have planted new vineyards in cooler coastal hills and valleys to escape the extreme heat of inland areas. And several Bay Area farmers have planted yangmei, a delicacy in China that can resist blights that ravage peaches and other popular California crops during rainy springs. 

“People almost never talk about the positives of global warming, but there will be winners and losers everywhere.”

Gary Gragg, Sacramento Valley farmer

Near the town of Linden, farmer Mike Machado, who served in the state Assembly and Senate from 1994 to 2008, is one of many growers in the arid San Joaquin Valley who have replaced some stone fruit and nut trees with olives, historically a minor California crop mostly produced in Mediterranean nations. 

“We’re adjusting for survival,” Machado said.



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Monday, March 13, 2023

Eel River Expected to Pass Flood Stage, Livestock Owners Advised to Protect Animals in Low-Lying Areas

Posted By on Mon, Mar 13, 2023 at 12:23 PM

frnc1-rvf-1-.png

A flood warning has been issued for the Eel River Valley from late tonight into early Wednesday afternoon and a special action statement has been issued that advises taking steps to protect livestock in low-lying areas, according to the Eureka office of the National Weather Service.

The California Nevada River Forecast Center is predicting the Eel River at Fernbridge will hit the 20-foot flood stage at approximately 6 a.m. Tuesday and continue rising until around midnight, hitting a peak of 23.1 feet.

Impact areas including Fernbridge, Scotia, Bridgeville, Fort Seward and Miranda.

At 22 feet, “the western half of the Eel Delta may be completely flooded, especially if at or above this level for an extended period of time,” including areas northwest of Loleta, Cannibal Island Road, the impact statement reads, while at 24 feet minor flood of State Route 211 into Ferndale can be expected while much of the Eel Delta may become flooded.

The crest, according to NWS, will be comparable to the event that took place Feb. 10, 2017. As of 8:15 a.m., the Eel River was at 15.5 feet.

A flood watch is currently on for portions of Humboldt County due to ongoing rain.

“Excessive runoff may result in flooding of rivers, creeks, streams, and other low-lying and flood-prone locations,” the flood watch states. “Creeks and streams may rise out of their banks. Flooding may occur in poor drainage and urban areas. Low-water crossings may be flooded.”

The Eel River is expected to fall below flood stage early Wednesday.

   

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Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Sheriff Honsal Declares Local Emergency Due to Winter Storms

Posted By on Wed, Mar 8, 2023 at 11:37 AM

HCSO/FACEBOOK
  • HCSO/Facebook
With recent storms wreaking havoc across the region and more winter weather on the way, Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal has declared a local emergency, which allows the county to apply for state and federal funds to address the damage and other impacts.

“Consecutive major winter storms have resulted in a large accumulation of snow, impassible roadways, downed trees, disrupted utility services, damaged and flooded roadways, mudslides, damaged structures and dead livestock; these impacts exhausting and exceeding available county resources,” a news release on the declaration states.

Another storm system is forecast to hit  Thursday and Friday, bringing "stronger winds, heavy rains, and higher snow levels to the region through the weekend," according to the Eureka office of the National Weather Service.

Heavy snow and downed trees or powerlines blocked all of the routes into and out of the county at one point, in some cases several times, in the last few weeks.

Those conditions have strained county resources, with the sheriff's office urging residents to take a pause on trips inland to see the snow after having to make several rescues, which impinged on deputies' abilities to respond to storm-related emergencies, conduct welfare checks and bring needed supplies to those snowed into their homes.

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Monday, February 27, 2023

‘Dream Big:’ Cannabis Workers Search for New Futures as Emerald Triangle Economy Withers

Posted By on Mon, Feb 27, 2023 at 9:58 AM

Leann Greene of the Humboldt Workforce Coalition at the Humboldt County Library in Garberville on Feb. 8, 2023. - PHOTO BY MARTIN DO NASCIMENTO, CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
  • Leann Greene of the Humboldt Workforce Coalition at the Humboldt County Library in Garberville on Feb. 8, 2023.
GARBERVILLE — Leann Greene’s rose-colored glasses are scratched, cracked, sitting askew, but still firmly planted on her face during her latest monthly open house for the Humboldt Workforce Coalition.

For three hours this Wednesday afternoon in a sunny conference room at the public library, apprehensive cannabis workers, lured by a segment on the community radio station KMUD, trickle through, seeking a potential refuge from their collapsing industry. Greene is their counselor and confidante, a relentless cheerleader promoting new career opportunities.

“So dream big. It’s your life, right?” she tells one young man looking for help connecting to job possibilities in a place where there don’t seem to be many right now.

It’s a mantra for Greene.

“You’re kind of reinventing your life here, so dream big,” she tells Daniel Rivero, who fears he could lose his job at any moment after his hours were cut back at the small warehouse where he manufactures cannabis products for $17 an hour.

A crash in the price of weed over the past two years has sent California’s cannabis market reeling — and with it, the communities that relied economically on the crop for decades, even before the “green rush” of commercial legalization.

In the Emerald Triangle — the renowned Northern California region of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties that historically served as the hub of cannabis cultivation for the state and the country — growers who can no longer sell their product for enough to turn a profit are laying off employees and shuttering their farms. The cascading financial impacts have left local residents with broken dreams and a daunting question: If not cannabis, then what?

“We just need to reassess this whole situation as a community of what we can do to evolve with it instead of trying to go against it,” Rivero said.



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Thursday, December 1, 2022

'Tridemic' Threatening Local Hospital Capacity

Posted By on Thu, Dec 1, 2022 at 4:38 PM

St. Joseph Hospital. - FILE
  • FIle
  • St. Joseph Hospital.
Following a trend seen across the state, region and country, local hospitals are nearly at capacity amid a surge in respiratory illnesses that's being dubbed a "tridemic" or "tripledemic" by some.

"With the circulation of multiple respiratory illnesses, such as RSV, influenza and COVID-19, we, like the rest of Northern California, are experiencing a significant increase in visits to our emergency department, most notably pediatric patients," Providence St. Joseph Hospital spokesperson Christian Hill told the Journal by email. "In some cases in order to ensure patients receive the level of care that meets their specific needs, they are transferred to an appropriate care setting out of the area."


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Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Ranchers Who Tapped Shasta River Face $4,000 Proposed Fine for Violating State Drought Order

Posted By on Tue, Nov 8, 2022 at 11:01 AM

Jim Scala at his ranch in Montague on Aug. 29, 2022. - PHOTO BY MARTIN DO NASCIMENTO, CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
  • Jim Scala at his ranch in Montague on Aug. 29, 2022.
California’s water officials plan to impose a $4,000 fine on Siskiyou County ranchers for violating orders to cut back their water use during a weeklong standoff last summer

State officials and the ranchers agree: A $4,000 fine isn’t much of a deterrent to prevent illegal water diversions during California’s droughts. The proposed fine would amount to about $50 per rancher. 

A rural water association serving about 80 ranchers and farmers — facing mounting costs from hauling water and purchasing hay to replace dried out pasture — turned on their pumps for eight days in August to divert water from the Shasta River. State and federal officials said the pumping, which violated an emergency state order, threatened the river’s water quality and its salmon and other rare species. 

Rick Lemos, a fifth generation rancher and board member of the Shasta River Water Association, said violating the drought order “was the cheapest way I could have got by … When you’re to a point where you have no other choice, you do what you have to do.” He said the alternatives “would have cost us, collectively, a lot more.” 

The penalty — $500 per day for eight days of pumping — is the maximum amount the State Water Resources Control Board’s enforcers can seek from the group of Siskiyou County ranchers under the state’s water code. The proposed fine requires a 20-day waiting period or a hearing before it is final. 

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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Four in a Row: California Drought Likely to Continue

Posted By on Wed, Sep 28, 2022 at 8:16 AM

Nearby mountain peaks with only small patches of snow near the Phillips Station meadow, shown shortly before the California Department of Water Resources conducted the forth media snow survey of the 2022 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The survey is held approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento off Highway 50 in El Dorado County. Photo taken April 1, 2022. - KEN JAMES / CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF WATER RESOURCES
  • Ken James / California Department of Water Resources
  • Nearby mountain peaks with only small patches of snow near the Phillips Station meadow, shown shortly before the California Department of Water Resources conducted the forth media snow survey of the 2022 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The survey is held approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento off Highway 50 in El Dorado County. Photo taken April 1, 2022.
As California’s 2022 water year ends this week, the parched state is bracing for another dry year — its fourth in a row.

So far, in California’s recorded history, six previous droughts have lasted four or more years,  two of them in the past 35 years. 

Despite some rain in September, weather watchers expect a hot and dry fall, and warn that this winter could bring warm temperatures and below-average precipitation

Conditions are shaping up to be a “recipe for drought”: a La Niña climate pattern plus warm temperatures in the Western Tropical Pacific that could mean critical rain and snowstorms miss California, according to Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with UCLA and The Nature Conservancy. 

Swain said California’s fate will depend on how exactly the storm track shifts, and that seasonal forecasts are inherently uncertain. Even so, “I would still put my money on dry, even in the northern third of the state,” he said. “It’s not a guarantee. But if you were to see 50 winters like this one, most of them would be dry.”



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