Water is already scarce without illegal marijuana gardens diverting and polluting streams in the Mendocino National Forest.
A typical illegal garden found on public land fosters about 5,000 marijuana plants, according to law enforcement authorities, and each plant needs between three and five gallons of water per day.
"It's not unusual for an entire water source to be diverted," Lake County Deputy Probation officer Dennis Reynolds said.
A meeting held in Lake County Thursday night addressed the ways such illegal grows damage the environment on public lands. The gardens destroy the forests, rob wildlife of habitat and water, are surrounded by undiscriminating booby traps and are marked by left-behind hoses, crude structures and trash.
"Statistics tell us that large-scale, illegal marijuana production is primarily, but not exclusively, controlled by Mexican drug trafficking organizations," Reynolds said.
Arrests are difficult once the grows are spotted, he said, but most of the laborers arrested at the illegal grows in Lake County are Mexican nationals who are here illegally.
"People are living in these grows, and consequently ... the wildlife is displaced, and that's what we're concerned about," Reynolds said.
He added sometimes illegal marijuana growing operations are found on property owned privately by unwitting land owners. He used as an example his aunt's 2,000-acre property near the Geysers, where four illegal grows were found in remote areas Advertisement Quantcast of the land last year.
The Lake County Fish and Wildlife Advisory Committee was the first county organization in the state to address the environmental impacts of illegal marijuana grows on public land, a problem Associate Field Manager Gary Sharpe of the Bureau of Land Management's Ukiah field office said is mostly a Northern California issue.
He said the BLM just started to receive federal funding to address the problem two years ago, and has since been able to clean up and restore habitat in three sites.
In 2009 alone, 130 illegal marijuana sites were found on public land in Lake and Mendocino Counties, according to Detective Steve Brooks of the Lake County Sheriff's Office. He estimated that was half of the existing sites.
Of those, 60 sites are on Ukiah BLM field office land.
Trees are cut down at the sites to construct shelters, beds and other structures that are left in place after the marijuana is harvested and workers leave the sites.
The grow sites are characterized by large, crude holes covered with plastic for water storage, often surrounded by fencing to keep animals out. Fertilizers are often mixed with the water and distributed to the plants, polluting the surrounding watershed.
Evidence of poaching is found at the sites. Illegal pesticides and rat poisons are used. Mostly empty canisters of propane used for cooking are left behind, posing a fire danger. Law enforcement officers find booby traps meant for animals and humans alike. Guns are a common find at the sites.
But cleanup serves more than one purpose, according to special Agent Matt Knudson of the Ukiah BLM field office. Removing the trash, structures and miles of plastic tubing for watering the plants also destroys the growers' habitat, making it hard for them to return to the same sites year after year.
Cleanup is time consuming and expensive. Using an old estimate he got from Knudson, Brooks guessed it takes $12,000 to clean up one acre of public land.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the sites are often in remote areas surrounded by steep, rocky terrain. Using a helicopter to remove the growing infrastructure adds $18,000 to the cost, according to Sharpe.
Sharpe said the BLM is still learning how to clean the sites and restore habitat, and plans to try and attract more federal money to the issue.
The committee plans to continue its discussion on Jan. 21, when it will discuss strategies for solving the problem. Committee chairman Greg Giusti said he plans to produce white papers as a result of the meetings to present to the boards of supervisors in Lake and Mendocino counties.
"We're dealing with an unregulated land use practice that's going to need a new strategy, and taking it on case by case, as has been the history of trying to deal with this, strikes me as not working," Giusti said.
November 23, 2009
The Ukiah Daily Journal