Marijuana VS Fish in Humboldt’s Watersheds

Photos of the two maps.

Scott Bauer of the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife raised quite a stir in Southern Humboldt with his speech before the Eel River Task Force in January. Maps from his presentation depicting alleged marijuana gardens in two prominent local watersheds splashed across the front page of the Independent and became a hot topic in homes and in various media outlets.  He claims that by using Google Earth to zoom in on the areas, his team discovered that each of the two watersheds contained roughly 19,000 marijuana plants this last season. Using calculations based on those numbers plants, he has attempted to estimate the amount of water drawn out the region and came up with numbers that he believes are quite serious. He believes that the water draws could damage fish populations.

Bauer says he and his team chose the two watersheds shown above because “Those two have a lot of fish. They are side by side… .”  He says the South Fork of the Eel has “a decent population” of fish and both creeks are tributaries of the South Fork of the Eel.  “We’re worried,” he says, “about the South Fork and we want to make sure those populations don’t wink out on us.” He also heard “there was extensive activity in those watersheds.”

Bauer has plans to similarly examine other watersheds in northern Humboldt and in Mendocino.

Tom Grover, a Southern Humboldt resident and community activist, has some concerns about the methodology of Bauer’s work. He believes that extrapolating from Google Earth didn’t give an accurate estimate of the number of plants in production or the amount of water being used. He says that to have credibility Bauer needs to have “ground truth–go there and actually see what is actually there.”  

He says that some of the sites depicted as grows aren’t and he believes that Bauer’s study doesn’t accurately describe the amount of water drawn from the creeks because there are multiple water storage tanks in these areas that aren’t reflected in the study. 

However, he does agree that “Fish are really suffering.”  Though he does not believe that small mom and pop marijuana growers are responsible for most of the issues. He believes, “It is the people doing big grows, often absentee owners.”  He says some of them care nothing for the land and will just “throw a hose in the creek” to get whatever water they want. He also points out that the logging industry years ago damaged the fish populations. But, he says, some companies are changing their practices for the better now.

Bauer is not worried by the concerns brought up by Grover and others.  He feels fairly confident that he got the overall numbers right. “We tried to error on the side of being conservative,” he said. However, “There is always a potential for a inaccurate reading…If people want to have me take [an alleged garden] off the site, let me come look.” He says that he would be open to doing that. But he adds that even if the numbers are off by 10%, ten percent off of 19,000 plants leaves “a lot of activity.”

Bauer worries that fish populations are being seriously impacted. “We need to collect more data but I keep telling people ‘How much longer will we have? Are we going to study this thing to death?'”

Bauer doesn’t believe that these presentations will alienate growers and keep them from working with agencies in the future. “…I think it started a serious discussion in those communities and other Humboldt communities.” He believes these discussions are forcing people to ask, “What are my personal activities? How are they contributing?”  He says that “We just gave a presentation in Mattole and people were interested.  The goal is to start a discussion.”

So far Humboldt County has not seen the full effects of increased production, Bauer believes.  “We haven’t had a dry year since [large scale marijuana production] started taking off in 2009.” During 2009 the combined area for marijuana production in both watersheds was 47 acres. In 2012, it was over 95 acres.  Grows doubled between 2009 and 2012, says Bauer.  Furthermore, he believes that production is likely to increase and water draw will be even more severe in years to come.

“We know that climate is changing,” he says. He explains that this was the driest January and February for a very long time. There isn’t much that individuals can do to control the changing weather, he says. However, “What we can control is how much water we use.  Diverting water for [marijuana growing] maybe that is the final cut” that will destroy our fish populations.

Bauer says that he and his department are trying to reach out to the communities to bring about change in the way growers use and store water. He’d like to see people get permits for their water use. “There is a lot of caring people in those watersheds.  If everybody had permits, we would know how much water is being used.”  However, there are other things people can do to help protect the fish. Bauer suggests,

  • Use less water.  Make sure water lines aren’t leaking. 
  • Don’t take water in the summer.
  • Develop water storage–ponds or tanks.
  • Control sediment–Use properly sized, not rusted culverts.  Gravel your road.
  • Eliminate pollutants -contain diesel.  Reduce or eliminate herbicides and don’t use or apply in ways that they end up in streams.

He says land owners should contact Fish and Wildlife for help managing their property. There are other groups that can be helpful also he says.  He suggests the Salmonid Restoration Federation, Humboldt CO. Resource Conservation Dist., and the Mattole Restoration Council.

He also suggests that communities in watersheds form their own groups like the Mattole Restoration Council and says, “Agencies often fund those kind of groups.  Then we are happy to work with a group effort like that.”

See Previously: Google Earth and Pot Farms.


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