The Long Thirst

At a meeting in Mendocino County’s town of Willits in late October, what seems a fairly narrow topic—illegal water diversion on public lands—rapidly transmogrifies into a frightening evening of dying fish, dry rivers, and out-of-control toxic algae. On that chilly night, the event attracts more than a hundred people covered in fleece outer garments, many wanting to pick a bone with state regulators. It turns out at least one of the speakers has the same agenda.

Ron Pugh, a US Forest Service special agent in charge of illegal activities on public lands, has spent the past few years concentrating on illegal marijuana grows. Marijuana “gardens”—a misnomer on a grand scale—are responsible for the majority of thirsty straws draining rivers and creeks that cross public lands. Pugh flips up a slide showing the spread of illegal grows across the nation. “This, “ he says ominously, meaning Mendocino and Humboldt counties, the crown jewels of US marijuana production, “is not even one of the heaviest pockets.”

In 1995, foreign nationals, mostly Mexicans, began growing marijuana in Southern California mountains and parks. By ’97, grows had spread into every national park on the West Coast. In 2001, those grows expanded from California, Oregon, and Washington into Idaho, and now are spreading like a giant ink stain across the center of the country’s park and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands all the way to the East Coast.

Says Pugh about the sheer volume of grows, “This is not a hippie thing.” He’s come prepared with a list of comparisons between a “hippie”grow and a DTO site—one maintained by a drug trafficking organization. A traditional garden on public lands, Pugh says, has one or two growers and fewer than fifty plants. The gardener, who lives locally, hikes in every other day or so, carrying water for his plants. Firearms are uncommon, and locations are predictable. “They’re within a quarter mile of a road,” Pugh explains, “and they’re rarely uphill. White guys are lazy.”

The DTO sites, on the other hand, are as remote as the growers can get, often three miles from the nearest road. They contain an average of 6,600 plants, tended by an average of seven growers who live in tents the entire season, from May to October. The growers are aided by scanners, radios, night-vision goggles, an arsenal of weapons, and truckloads of plastic pipe to divert area streams to their plants, sometimes from as far as a half-mile away. When they abandon the site in the fall, they leave behind mountains of trash, about as much trash as a small city dump.
What they bring in is just as bad. “They smuggle in pesticides from Mexico,” Pugh says, “more potent than you can buy here. And believe me, they don’t care about the creeks.” When Pugh describes growers mixing chemicals directly in the creek to pump onto their plants, a moan ripples through the audience.

In a later email exchange, Pugh says that he’s had trouble getting people to understand the ramifications of the crisis: “That’s why I go to great effort to point out that we aren’t dealing with `just marijuana,’ but a huge environmental issue,” Pugh says. “Basically everyone cares, to some degree or other, about that.” Pugh gives his presentation about twice a month, he says, to spread the word to new people: “When they become informed,
they become outraged,” he says. “And outraged people demand action.”

The US Forest Service is not a drug agency, though recently DTO sites were reclassified as crime scenes, which allows inter-agency cooperation with local and national law enforcement. The agency can now sift through trash for phone numbers, receipts, and other tips that could extend criminal prosecution past the hired help and up to the drug lords at the top of the chain. Pugh evokes laughs when he quickly corrects himself while explaining how the combined law enforcement effort needs to locate Mr. Big—“or Ms. Big. Well, I’m pretty sure it is Mr. Big.”

Pugh emphasizes that while the marijuana grows are an enormous drain on resources both financial and environmental, they are also a huge safety issue—after all, these are public lands where anyone can hike. If you stumble on a scene, Pugh advises, retreat immediately and call for help; during this past season, DTO growers killed two hunters on BLM land in Humboldt County.

The Forest Service has no funding for cleanup and depends upon volunteers to help out. Pugh estimates that it takes $5,000 per acre to remove DTO infrastructure and another $5,000 to restore the site. “Eradicating these grows is a number-one national priority,” he says, explaining that he’s met with state and federal Congressional delegates
frequently over the past two years and that Dianne Feinstein, a member of the Senate Committee
on the Judiciary, is particularly concerned.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman supplies the local picture, noting that the county’s per capita sales of rat poison are the highest in the nation; growers buy rat poison by the pallet because watering the grow sites attracts rodents. This poison ultimately contaminates the soil and creeks while poisoning raptors and other animals that eat the dead vermin. DTO growers also routinely shoot wildlife.

Most of all, they consume water. “As you go downstream on the Eel, the river should grow,” says Allman. “Instead, it gets smaller because people are pumping into storage tanks and directly into gardens.” Allman estimates that 3.6 million pot plants are grown on public lands—“That’s 3.6 million gallons of water a day,” he says, “pumped out of our creeks and rivers.” Allman pledges to respond to anonymous GPS reports of pumps and hose: “I’ll pull pumps,” he promises. “We’ll fly tributaries. I want to see the salmon come back.”

Salmon are equal opportunity victims, not just impacted by foreign nationals growing pot on public lands. As fisheries and watershed scientist Patrick Higgins points out, many of us are killing the creeks and rivers by supporting agriculture that relies on illegal diversions and unpermitted dams. Higgins, from Arcata’s Kier Associates, comes armed with graphs showing the number of illegal diversions and dams outnumber permitted diversions all along the North Coast and in Napa and Lake counties.

Higgins recalls fishing in Mendocino County’s Outlet Creek during the ‘60s, when it was loaded with steelhead. By 1996, because of illegal drafting, parts of the creek were dry in the summer, stranding fish in deep pools—pools from which diesel pumps lift water daily. Higgins says there are 1,700 illegal diversions in Marin County alone. Flyovers show illegal ponds everywhere, for vineyards and other agricultural uses. The Napa River used to have Coho salmon, the Navarro is dry, and so is the Gualala. Creeks dry between pools that often become clogged with algae that grows in the too-warm, too-still water. When the algae blooms, it releases a nerve toxin that has poisoned dogs and wildlife.

By email, Higgins sent a chart showing the difference in fish populations during El Niño and Niña years—populations fluctuate depending upon drought and full water flows. Through drafting and illegal dams, we’ve created a couple decades of drought-like conditions, even though we’ve actually had wet years like 2005. When a real drought comes along—as it has now—the fish are already stressed and in historically low numbers. “We have a regional crisis,” Higgins says. “There’s something called public trust. We all own the fish, and we all own the water. We’ve lost public trust in this culture.”

Higgins has a laundry list of those not “minding the store,” including the California State Water Resources Control Board: “seldom seen and completely ineffective,” he charges. The water board says that because of limited resources, its enforcement style is informal. It tends to respond to violations by issuing retroactive permits for illegal diversions that may have existed for years: “They send people a postcard or an email and call it informal enforcement,” Higgins says. He calls for profound reform, including requiring that all diversions carry a permit and that management of surface and groundwater be turned over to a state agency with public trust as its watchword. Illegal dams should be torn out, he says, and unpermitted diversions penalized by administrative fines of $500 daily. “It’s just a grab,” Higgins concludes. “When you disturb landscapes, the landscape reacts. If you change the nature of a watershed, you change everything.”