How Legalizing Marijuana Could Help California Address Drought

There are many arguments for legalizing marijuana, but in California none may be more critical than the environmental one

Producing marijuana involves substantial amounts of water. Credit: Jason Henry/NY Times/Redux

A flight over Mendocino County puts California's drought into stark perspective. You soar over arid hills, browning trees and bone-dry riverbeds. As the state continues to battle the drought and its effects, its leaders are considering every possible means to cut water usage, but there's an obvious culprit that could merit a closer look: marijuana. Fully legalizing marijuana production for all uses — rather than only permitting people to grow up to six plants for private medical use — would allow the state to regulate the drug more closely, and that would include a serious crackdown on water usage.

The case for legalization has been argued from a number of perspectives, but drought relief could end up being one of the most critical. Officials are already frustrated by water usage for marijuana cultivation, and they're developing a hodge-podge of policy frameworks to address it, but legalization would make their jobs significantly easier. It would also benefit farmers who want to do the right thing by the environment but feel constrained by the law.

California's drought is believed to be the worst in 1,200 years. The state government has mandated unprecedented cutbacks in water use even as the nation's largest agricultural producer allows crops to lie fallow in the fields and rips out orchards of water-hungry crops like almonds, the unwitting and somewhat unfairly targeted scapegoat of water waste.

Marijuana, however, remains largely in the shadows because its illegality makes it impossible to regulate. The bulk of the state's biggest cash crop — estimated at around $16 billion dollars — is produced in the so-called Emerald Triangle of Humbolt, Mendocino and Trinity Counties, some of which have highly ecologically vulnerable areas but also offer the shelter of miles of state forest, once-ample water supplies and places to hide grows. Many farmers seek hidden nooks and crannies of the state to cultivate their illicit crop, and aren't conscientious about water usage or environmental regulations because they don't need to be, with no one looking over their shoulders – at least until recently.

Producing marijuana involves substantial amounts of water. Though there's some debate as to the exact amount of water marijuana plants use, one study estimates that that they require about six gallons per plant per day, almost twice as much as another famous California crop, the wine grape. Notably, the growing season spans the summer months, when much of California goes without any rain to replenish water supplies. That water has to come from somewhere, and in the Emerald Triangle, it's primarily diverted from rivers, lakes and streams — or stolen from farmers whose water use is regulated by the state.

California’s byzantine water laws — behind the infamous "water wars" of the early 20th century — can be difficult to navigate. The state has a confusing dual system of riparian rights and appropriative rights. In the case of appropriative rights, such permissions are attached to the land by virtue of assertion of water use rights before 1914, when the state began reevaluating its water use policy. Effectively, anyone could post a notice announcing she intended to use water, and she could do so accordingly, with a first come, first served approach to water use. Riparian, or diversion, rights allow farmers to use water from streams adjacent to or on their properties, but not to divert water across other properties. Riparian rights can be exercised without state control, unless farmers attempt to extend them beyond the waterways they may legally access. Appropriative rights are more closely regulated. Both, however, must be "reasonable and beneficial," per California law.

Grows often reduce rivers to a trickle, damaging habitat for steelhead and Coho salmon in addition to other aquatic life. Some watershed surveys revealed a 100 percent water diversion, leaving dry riverbeds where water once flowed. Moreover, pollution from grows, including human waste, pesticides, herbicides and other agricultural chemicals, winds up in California waterways. The industry also does considerable damage not just to delicate watersheds, but to habitats used by a variety of wildlife, via illegal access roads and logging to create clearings for growing purposes.

The prospect of legalization creates avenues for the state to resolve marijuana's bizarrely nebulous status, and by extension to start regulating its water usage and environmental impacts: How do you regulate a crop that people can't legally produce? Technically, it's quasi-legal to produce large grows, as long as farmers can offer documentation that they're growing plants on behalf of those with medical marijuana prescriptions. Few farmers, however, are willing to run the risk of public attention.

Permitting legal growth of marijuana encourages grows to come down from the hills, abandoning ecologically vulnerable areas that aren't suited for agriculture. The move would offer immediate environmental benefits, but in addition it would bring growers into the larger agricultural fold. By growing side by side with other California farmers, they'd become part of the state's water policy mandates, and that would result in forced reductions in water usage, as well as more intelligent and efficient water use.

Regulators would be able to inspect grows and offer recommendations for reductions in water usage, such as using rainwater collection to create stores for the summer months — a tactic already recommended by water-conscious farmers.

The California Water Resources Board is beginning to explore the use of diversion permits, wastewater release permits and other documentation that growers in a number of counties would need to obtain, but their work only applies to farms that are willing to register, and focuses on those who cultivate on private property rather than public land. Some growers turn to state parks and other public land in order to protect themselves — in the event a grow is discovered, they don't risk losing their real estate to asset forfeiture, and it's much easier to hide plantations deep in the forest.

The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is in the process of setting up a multi-tiered system for permits associated with marijuana cultivation, recognizing the inevitable: Marijuana cultivation is deeply entrenched in California, and it's not going to go away. That doesn't mean, however, that it needs to be environmentally destructive.

Notably, many growers are open to such regulation and cooperate with environmental agencies focused on water use. This illustrates that their water wastage practices have more to do with the illegal nature of the crop — which forces them in the shadows — than it does with willful environmental carelessness.

Pilot programs are providing guidelines for a brave new world of marijuana growing, which is a strong start, but legalization needs to close the loop. Until grows can move to more ecologically appropriate locations, with more closely monitored and regulated water usage, marijuana cultivation will continue to contribute to environmental degradation and drought-associated problems across the state. As wildfires swirl across Northern California, underscoring the severity of water scarcity in the tinderbox environment, the argument for pursuing any means possible to control the drought becomes more and more appealing. A better framework for marijuana policy could be an important piece of the puzzle.