Sheriffs have tried to regulate it, environmentalists loathe it, and police spend a few months every summer tromping around the woods and buzzing around it in helicopters trying to quash it. And yet it comes back, each and every year, sometimes bigger than ever.
What to do about California's outdoor marijuana industry? Ban it, outlaw it and remove it from the face of mountains in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, if you ever want to eat a California Chinook salmon ever again, according to one estimate.
A substantial, data-driven report published yesterday in Quartz connects outdoor cannabis cultivation to the ongoing drought, and posits that excessive water usage by unscrupulous outdoor growers could finally do what the logging industry and dams blocking rivers never could: eradicate the state's signature fishes.
In dry seasons -- such as the one we currently find ourselves in -- marijuana cultivation can use as much as 30 percent of the water in some watersheds, according to a California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimate.
That's simply too much for overtaxed streams to handle, and the end result are "waterless streambeds littered with dead fish," CDFW biologist Scott Bauer told Quartz. Pot has the potential to completely "dewater" some streams, Bauer said.
How much water does outdoor cannabis need? Pot plants use as much as six gallons of water a day over a watering season of between 150 and 200 days. A good rough estimate is 1,000 gallons of water per plant, per season.
Just how much pot is really grown in Northern California's Emerald Triangle? Nobody really knows. Quartz says that state environmental regulators estimate 221 acres of weed is grown throughout the three-county area of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity. That's 10 million square feet. That sounds like a lot -- and it is.
However, not every last inch of that is covered in weed. An aerial (read: Google Earth) investigation of southern Mendocino in 2012 revealed about 32,000 plants, according to the CDFW. That sounds much more reasonable... except the data is from March, when very few farmers have their plants in the ground. A better revelation would have come in May or June.
There are a couple of assumptions made in the otherwise excellent Quartz report that warrant further scrutiny. First, marijuana is "incredibly profitable." For some folks, maybe, but it is also a large amount of risk and hard work. To bring 100 plants from seed to market takes many people working half of the year. If each of those plants net four pounds, the theoretical market value of that grow is $1 million, at $2,500 per pound. Easy money, right?
Not really. Not each of those plants will net four pounds. Some will rot, some will die, some will get stolen or smoked by your trimmers and the other hired help required to tame such a sizable enterprise. And good luck getting $2,500 a pound for outdoor marijuana -- top growers, who have been doing this for a long, long time, would kill for that price point. A better estimate is $1,000 per pound -- and out of that price, subtract the cost of soil, nutrients, water, hired help, and everything else you did that season.
So. Will weed kill our famous delicious fishes? There were no rivers identified by name that went dry as a result of weed, but the potential is certainly there. And in a twist, a dry year could drive more people to try and grow -- less weed could mean more demand and ergo more profit.
Agriculture may yet destroy the salmon industry, but not the illegal kind. A much bigger-threat, as detailed in this week's East Bay Express, are the powerful agriculture pumps in the Delta that deliver water to valuable almond crops, which are shipped to a rapaciously-demanding market in China.
The massive stands of almond trees in the San Joaquin Valley suck up far more water than a weed industry ever could. Marijuana grows do wreak an environmental toll that could and should be reined in by regulation -- the message of the Quartz report, which blames the federal government for encouraging environmental malfeasance through prohibition -- but all California agriculture has long competed with wildlife for water.
Blaming weed for the drought is a bit like blaming a small tech company for gentrification, while ignoring the Twitter giant next door.