California’s forests are hiding plenty of illegal marijuana farms. Now, toxic chemicals from these operations are seeping into streams and rivers, feeding the state’s water supply, and making the water unfit for human or animal consumption. Fears abound now that all living creatures in parts of California are at risk.
Evidence of potentially deadly pollutants in watersheds across Central and Northern California is just the latest environmental damage done by thousands of illegal marijuana plantations, which, according to law enforcement, are mainly drug cartels growing weed for customers in other states. The situation is dire and lawmakers must take action.
“I do not drink out of the creeks, and I used to,” said Sergeant Nathaniel Trujillo, a Trinity County narcotics expert from the sheriff’s department. “I grew up drinking out of them.” At least 90 percent of all illegal pot farming in the United States occurs in California. According to state estimates, the state has as many as 50,000 cannabis farms.
Despite this, and despite voters legalizing marijuana in November last year, experts expect only around 16,000 of them to apply for commercial cultivation licenses when the state starts issuing them next year. Many of these illegal cultivators are using pesticides and fertilizers long banned or restricted in the United States, including zinc phosphide and carbofuran.
Now, thousands of acres of California’s forests are little more than chemical waste dumps. Several law enforcement officers needed emergency medical treatment for touching equipment and plants. Scores of animals are dead. Streams testing positive for chemical toxicity are crucial water sources for people, cattle, fish, and various vulnerable animals, including the Northern Spotted Owl and the Pacific fisher.
The most populous state in the United States is now reliant on a water supply system contaminated by the creeks and rivers feeding into it. An ecologist working with law enforcement on issues of cannabis contamination, Mourad Gabriel, confirmed this ecocide, “Carbofuran is in the water, and it is not supposed to be. How are we going to mitigate something like that?”
According to the National Institutes of Health, carbofuran poisoning can cause vomiting, dizziness, nausea, headaches, convulsions, muscle twitching, and even death. Diazinon, another toxic chemical that Gabriel found in creeks and rivers, causes weakness, blue fingernails and lips, difficulty breathing, convulsions, and even coma. These are serious toxins.
Gabriel, widely regarded as a leading authority on toxic pesticides used in marijuana grow operations and who has visited more than 100 cultivation sites throughout California, said that he found contaminants in roughly half of the streams he analyzed in eight different watersheds and across all of the state’s prime marijuana-growing regions.
According to Reuters, tests conducted by Gabriel revealed the presence of carbofuran, diazinon, and other toxins just downstream from marijuana farms in Humboldt County on the state’s northwestern coastline, Kern County in Central California, Mendocino County to the north of Santa Rosa, and several others. Chemicals were present in trace amounts in some of these cases.
Some of these streams still tested positive for toxic chemicals more than a year after police officers cleared nearby land of illegal grows. Gabriel said that law enforcement closed a grow operation at Brush Mountain in Kern County back in June 2014. The following November and December, the local stream still showed high traces of diazinon, despite previous crackdowns.
Then, after testing it again in February 2015, the stream seemed chemical-free. However, the following year, chemicals resurfaced in the water. This prompted Gabriel to speculate that it could take months, even years, for these toxins to pass through the soil. “It is like a layer cake,” he said. They put chemical on chemical on chemical. We will find different chemicals in the water in different years.”
In another example, a Trinity County stream tested negative for chemicals in 2014, but by December 2016, it tested positive for pesticides. According to officials, there is no comprehensive state program for testing marijuana contaminants, and not much work is occurring at the local level either. This is hugely problematic, as many animals and people depend on water from their local sources.
Public panic is mounting. Patricia Young, from a cattle-raising family in Shasta County, said that in just the last three years, eight cows suddenly died near an irrigation channel they use as a watering hole. Young suspects that cannabis grows in the nearby woods are responsible for these poisonings, and she is busy testing the stream to prove it.
In a study conducted for the Mule Deer and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundations, Gabriel found chemicals in game animals, including numerous elk and deer who tested positive in liver samples, and including a quail Gabriel shot and shared with his family. Now, fears are becoming increasingly widespread that humans may be harboring these chemicals too.
Trujillo, narcotics sergeant from Trinity County sheriff’s department, said that his police dog, a Belgian Malinois called Johnny, jumped into a reservoir near an illegal pot farm and nearly died from pesticide poisoning. Currently, California is creating regulatory laws for cannabis farms, including laws governing pesticide use and water quality. However, it does not include widespread water testing.
The federal government, unhappy owner of most land where illegal pot farming occurs, also does not conduct any sort of extensive testing of water sources close to these poisonous sites. North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board executive officer, Matt St. John, said that his agency has plans to regulate the use of pesticides by cannabis farmers. However, it would be too expensive to test streams on a frequent basis.
On September 19, supervisors from Trinity County will decide whether to authorize a program for testing along some of the Trinity River and its tributaries. Leslie Hubbard, Planning Director for Trinity County, said, “Maybe six months down the road we will say water quality was not affected all that much, but maybe we will say we have a disaster on our hands.” Let us pray for the former.