A massive, three county raid, yielding 86,578 marijuana plants, revealed a startling amount of environmental destruction and water diversion in Northern California's famed cannabis growing region, the Emerald Triangle.
The law-enforcement blitz across Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties in late June uncovered 97 environmental violations, including diverting water from creeks to feed marijuana plants. Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman estimated the seized plants required about 500,000 gallons of water a day.
"There's a broad spectrum of environmental damage there," Allman said, according to the Press Democrat, which serves Northern California.
The large Emerald Triangle farms, which produce 1,000 plants or more, often violate county cannabis ordinances and unwritten agreements between law enforcement officials and farmers, as well as state environmental regulations.
At one of the grow sites raided by county sheriffs, with support from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, farmers had installed a giant water-storage bladder. At other sites, law enforcement found 50,000-gallon tanks, dams, reservoirs, and illegal ponds.
The sheriff's office released photographs depicting mounds of trash and illegal landscaping carried out to make way for the cannabis farms.
Watch the VICE News documentary "Inside America's Billion-Dollar Weed Business: The Grass Is Greener" here:
Pot producers have come under attack for the amount of water they allegedly use, particularly since the onset of California's ongoing drought, now in its fourth year. It's the worst dry spell in over a thousand years, say scientists, and a wide range of commodities, ranging from almonds and alfalfa to bottled water and marijuana have been blamed for sapping surface water supplies and aquifers.
State officials argue that cannabis farmers don't follow state water diversion regulations, which protect rivers and streams from agricultural projects that could diminish surface water levels, thereby threatening endangered fish, such as steelhead trout. They estimate that each cannabis plant requires between six to ten gallons of water per day.
But pot farmers and advocates for legal weed say the figure is overblown.
Cannabis farmer Swami Chaitanya told VICE News, "An [eighth of an ounce] of cannabis uses only a few gallons of water," he said.
Also at issue is the estimated value of the recent seizure. Officials said the busts yielded $26.5 million worth of grass. But, according to Tim Blake founder of the Emerald Cup, an annual competition for the finest bud, the pot would likely be worth well over $85 million given current prices.
Such a large capture of cannabis may move the market, driving prices higher than the $2,000 per pound wholesale buyers currently pay. The high wholesale price is a result of increased demand nationwide, not just within the medical system in California, since an unknown but significant portion of the Emerald Triangle's crop is getting shipped out of state.
The busts, which Sheriff Allman said aren't over yet, may have other consequences. For the first time growers in the Emerald Triangle have organized several political action committees in the hope that their voice will be heard ahead of a likely 2016 vote to legalize the drug in California.
It's an unusual move because in the past growers have usually ignored or opposed attempts to legalize cannabis.
The raids cast a shadow over those efforts, though. Some farmers have said they want to participate in a legal, regulated marketplace. But the raids, said Blake, undermined any trust among growers that government agencies were interested in bringing the illegal trade into the light of day.
"It's demoralizing for me," Blake said. "We've spent so much time putting together all these people, and in a week in a half, [the raids] negated most of our work."
Follow Max Cherney on Twitter: @chernandburn