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Cannabis vs Water: water theft to grow pot undocumented

Editor’s note: With the likelihood of a severe drought impacting irrigators this summer, the Herald and News wanted to learn how illegal marijuana grows may factor into the water shortage.

Such illicit operations are notorious for drawing large amounts of water and diverting flows from streams to irrigate their unlicensed crops.

When H&N spoke to local law enforcement and water authorities, we learned the impact illegal grows may have on the aquifer is largely unknown. However a better understanding may come forward this summer as the drought takes effect and deputies step up their enforcement efforts.

Illegal marijuana grows have been well-documented in Northern California where agencies such as the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office have made marijuana enforcement a top priority. Though recreational marijuana became legal in California last year, such businesses are banned in Siskiyou County; the sheriff’s office has since busted a prolific number of illegal grows.

According to figures published last year, roughly $375 million worth of processed and raw cannabis was seized in Siskiyou County in 2017. Authorities served more than 175 warrants throughout the county with operations ranging from unauthorized backyard medial grows to facilities connected to organized crime.

While crafting legislation to regulate medical marijuana in 2015, California legislators said the estimated 50,000 illegal grows in the state were having a significant impact on water availability. Senator Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said illegal grows were “literally sucking rivers dry” in a Scientific American interview and connected grows to dying fish populations.

McGuire’s proposed legislation was successful and required marijuana growers to preserve natural resources including in-steam flows and water quality.

Local numbers unknown

However, the potential impact of marijuana grows on Klamath County is not easy to estimate because police are not entirely sure how many there are.

During 2017, the Klamath County Sheriff’s Office began a survey of grows throughout the county, both legal and illicit, with a plan to begin a larger crackdown this summer. Sheriff Chris Kaber said deputies likely only scratched the surface and, of the 62 grows documented last year, there were probably many more.

When asked how illegal grows may affect water availability, Kaber said he is sure they are having an impact but could not say to what degree.

“It sounds reasonable to me there is some negative effect,” said Kaber. “It is just not calculable.”

How they do it

Kaber said growers arrested last year were illegally accessing water in multiple ways. Some were diverting directly from A Canal, some were stealing from neighboring irrigators, some would fill portable tanks from rivers, while others would purchase water illegally sold from community wells.

“I’ve found where people have run up to one-half mile of plastic water line from springs and used siphon and gravity to irrigate, even using battery-operated timers to so they don’t have to be with their plants every day,” said Kaber. “…We’ve seen fences cut, locks on pumps cut off, you name it.”

Kaber said water thefts should be reported to authorities —and many are — but when it is difficult to determine who the victim of the theft is his office is unable to proceed.

“The Klamath County Sheriff’s Office usually hears about water theft after the fact and without an identifiable victim, so the information usually dies there and we don’t pull a case number without an identifiable victim,” said Kaber.

The water users

Aside from law enforcement, local water authorities are also unaware of the impact of illegal grows and are not positive how to proceed.

Scott White, executive director for Klamath Water Users Association, said because marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, marijuana growers already cannot use water regulated by a federal agency like the Bureau of Reclamation. In light of this this, tracking the impact of illegal grows has not been a priority for the association and they currently have no information regarding their impact.

“Its something that we really haven’t been keeping close tabs on,” said White.

When asked how he believes illegal grows could impact water users, White said he could not say without seeing related data. He said the Oregon Water Resource Department (OWRD) may be in a better position to offer information.

Dani Watson, Klamath County watermaster and local representative for OWRD, said she was unable to comment on marijuana-related issues. She did say her office is more optimistic about water conditions this summer after recent snowfall, but much more precipitation would be needed to avoid a drought.

“I think everybody’s hoping for more snow and hopefully we’ll get it,” said Watson.

What’s being done

Watson said she has been speaking regularly with irrigators about their concerns for the coming summer, primarily whether or not officials are prepared to mitigate the impact of the drought.

She said Klamath County commissioners’ decision to declare a drought emergency Feb. 20 was the first important step in making resources available. The state and federal governments must similarly declare a drought for irrigator protections to take effect and have yet to do so.

“It really kind of depends on if and when that occurs,” said Watson.




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              Page Updated: Thursday March 15, 2018 12:32 AM  Pacific

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