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.