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New Policy Sets Rules for Marijuana Growers to Protect California Water

California’s State Water Board recently passed new policies that will regulate water impacts from marijuana growing operations. Erin Ragazzi and Scott Couch of the Water Board discuss the challenges.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
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As the legalization of recreational marijuana in California looms, so do concerns over how the new industry will use the state’s limited water.LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images

On October 17, the California State Water Resources Control Board adopted new environmental policies to regulate how marijuana growing operations will impact California’s already limited water resources. The new regulations are in response to voters’ approval of Proposition 64 in 2016 to legalize recreational marijuana.

Cannabis cultivation can impact local water by reducing flows in streams and creeks or polluting waterways with pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. Even the construction of roads and buildings for cannabis farming causes sediment runoff and erosion that damages nearby streams and rivers. Until recently, this was difficult to address because many growing operations were illegal.

The new rules will be implemented through five regulatory programs, which will require certain permits depending on the size of the operation. Among other things, the new policies limit how much water needs to be flowing through a channel before water can be diverted for marijuana growth, how many acres of land an operation can disturb, how growers should dispose of their waste and how the new permits will be enforced through cooperation with local, state and federal law enforcement.

Water Deeply Recently spoke with Erin Ragazzi, an assistant deputy director for the State Water Board’s Division of Water Rights and Water Quality Certification and Scott Couch, section chief of groundwater protection at the State Water Board, about developing the new policy.

Water Deeply: What damage can cannabis farming do to water quality? And what kind of damage are you hoping to reduce with this regulation?

Erin Ragazzi: There’s a variety of different types of damage that can occur, depending on where the cannabis cultivation activities are taking place, and the measures that are put in place to protect the environment. Our focus here is mainly on surface water and groundwater protection, and the beneficial uses associated with them.

Scott Couch: I just wanted to also add that we’re seeing the types of things on the cultivation side, like waste – just trash, human waste, waste from fertilizer, pesticide containers, things like that. We don’t want that stuff in the water.

Water Deeply: Even just building roads to these sites can be damaging. Is that something that you are paying attention to as well?

Ragazzi: That’s definitely something that the policy in general order addresses. We have specific conditions related to sediment controls, targeted specifically at land, then the roads. So, in the policy, we really direct people to make sure that they’re meeting the requirements in the road [building], and then having appropriate best management practices in place to control sediment runoff.

That wouldn’t be a problem in many cases, except that we’ve got cannabis cultivation in areas of the state that aren’t highway-developed, and these rural areas, in order to gain access there is a lot of road building that wouldn’t occur with traditional agriculture.

Couch: Yeah, we’re seeing a lot of damage in the North Coast, in particular, for road-building activities that are contributing to sediment and damaging streams and habitat.

Water Deeply: A lot of these impacts have been in remote parts of the North Coast, but there is also a lot of new industry growth happening in Southern California in an entirely different landscape. When it comes to things like building roads, or other policies, how have you tried to shape the new policies to adapt them to Southern California?

Ragazzi: What we did was develop a statewide policy that looked at the various impacts associated with cannabis cultivation. It’s not that it’s targeted at Southern California or Northern California, but when we’re looking at cultivation activities, what requirements are necessary to protect water quality and the associated water habitat, you’re going to have the potential for less impact if you have an indoor grow in general than you will with an outdoor grow that is right adjacent to a stream system.

But we do take that into account, and all commercial cannabis grows that are going to the California Department of Food and Agriculture will need to register with the State Water Board to determine what coverage they need under the Waste Discharge Requirements that the board recently adopted.

Water Deeply: Is it difficult to balance growing in Southern California, an industry that’ll be mostly indoors I imagine, versus say the North Coast, which is mostly outdoors and therefore might have more of an environmental impact?

Couch: Well, we tried to cover both of those areas, and we have requirements for both indoor and outdoor cultivation.

The thing about the indoor – we’ve heard of warehouses being converted in Southern California, or old IKEA stores and things like that – that they may want to grow inside, and you think, “Well, there won’t be a discharge,” but even there … If they have to discharge their wastewater, and if it goes into a community sewer system, it won’t be covered by this permit that we have. So, they have to have a permit from the sewer system to be able to discharge their waste down the sewer.

Water Deeply: Up until this point, cannabis growing has mostly been on the black market in California. In some of our previous coverage, Scott Greacen, at the Friends of the Eel River, mentioned that many growers – who are already using the black market – might just continue to do so to avoid regulations. Do you think there is a risk that these further regulations are going to push more growers to take that route, or discourage people who are already using the black market to start growing legally?

Ragazzi: Well, I think that we are cognizant of the need to develop requirements that we think are protective of water quality, but also create an environment in which people want to come in to the regulated community, because they have been in the black market for so long. What will be your carrots and sticks?

One key component of that is doing the education outreach to make the folks aware of what we’re requiring, why we’re requiring it, but then also having the enforcement arm necessary to facilitate folks knowing that they can’t hide in the black market, but that we are going to be taking enforcement actions against folks that are not registered and enrolled in our program.

I think there are incentives already as part of the legislation that incentivize people to come into the process earlier rather than later. There’s the potential to have a limited number of plant identifiers and licenses issued by the various entities, and so those folks that come forward earlier are going to be in a better position than folks that may stand on the sidelines and wait for a while.

There are those carrots in terms of the early adopters, and the board has an enforcement policy that is very focused on education as one of its first pillars, before you move directly to further enforcement.

We don’t directly inform the other agencies for purposes of eradication. Typically, to my knowledge, what occurs is the State Water Board staff will go out with California Department of Fish and Wildlife staff and their warden, and as part of those joint inspections there may be an eradication process that takes place, depending upon the unique circumstances of that specific site.

Water Deeply: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Is there anything else that you would like to say?

Ragazzi: Well, I think one of the things that’s important to point out is that the policy creates a comprehensive mechanism to regulate cannabis cultivation, and it includes both those water supply, water rights side and water quality components. Specifically, I think it’s important to note we have a lot of important requirements to address individual and cumulative impacts that can occur in watersheds, and that’s been a big concern for a lot of folks, in terms of not just the site-specific impacts but the broader cumulative impacts in a watershed.

To that end, that policy includes requirements establishing maximum diversion rate, a forbearance period when no diversions can occur and instream flow requirements so that even when you’re in the season of diversion, you can always divert when flows are above that instream flow requirement. So there’s a pretty comprehensive look at ensuring that we’re not seeing the impacts associated with diversion and use of water, while at the same time allowing folks a pathway to get a storage water right, which often would take a very long period of time.

Cannabis cultivators now will have access to a small irrigation use registration that will give them the ability to store water during the wet season for use during the dry season, and it’s really a step forward to be able to offer that streamlined process within a short period of time.

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