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Dry High: Despite Law Enforcement Reports, Marijuana Is Relatively Water-Friendly. 

Wednesday, Apr 29 2015
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Last week, 60 law enforcement officers raided a massive and sophisticated illegal marijuana grow operation in Tulare County. The bust — 49 greenhouses, 12,000 plants, 50 pounds of processed product, and 2,600 pounds of "partially processed" marijuana — is one of the biggest in recent memory. It also provided an unwitting preview of what commercial cannabis cultivation will look like in post-legalization California: large farms on cheap real estate in the Central Valley, near highways and population centers, using the sun.

No news report on a drug seizure is complete without a dollar amount for what the drugs are worth. Based on a formula of $1,000 per pound and two pounds per plant, this was a $27 million operation, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux told reporters. Those figures are almost always inflated. The temptation may be too much to resist; after all, the bigger the number, the better the bust for the cops. And the official math is rarely questioned by the public or media.

In this case, the sheriff might have underestimated. If the weed had headed out of state, it could have commanded 200 percent to 300 percent of what Boudreaux reported.

But Boudreaux had something else, something that today registers even more outrage in drought-stricken California. The grow, the sheriff said, also sucked down 61,555 gallons of water a day, almost 1.5 million gallons in April alone, enough water to supply 153 families of four.

It's not enough to be blamed for the corruption of the youth. Marijuana is now also responsible for the corruption of California's environment.

Blaming weed farms for the drought will be the new normal. As the multibillion dollar cannabis industry continues to expand during the driest period in recorded California history, marijuana farmers' contributions to the drought will be regular features of drug bust reports.

In the parched farm country of Tulare, where for the second year in a row pistachio and almond growers will receive a fraction of the water they normally enjoy, this hits home. Even in the Bay Area, where water use is the stingiest in the state, this will resonate.

Those water use figures are also far too high. They're based on a formula that gained mainstream traction last year: six gallons of water per plant per day. It's an easy equation that marijuana experts now deride as absurd, yet it has been repeated in the media with almost no scrutiny, in outlets including Mother Jones.

The number originated with good intentions. Watching streams go dry in pot-growing country in Mendocino and Humboldt counties — with habitat for coho salmon and steelhead trout disappearing along with it — state Fish and Wildlife scientist Scott Bauer sought to quantify the effect cannabis cultivation had on these vanishing waterways.

His was the first serious effort — and he had almost no data to go on. This was uncharted territory for official sources. Even the DEA had only rough estimates for how much water their favorite eradication target uses.

So Bauer used the best estimate available: 22.7 liters per plant per day. That figure comes from the best possible source: marijuana growers, who published the number in never-adopted guidelines for regulating cultivation in Humboldt County.

Those same growers say today that the figure is a "worst-case" estimate that was never meant to be an industry-wide average or representative of typical water use.

A plant in the early stages of development would be drowned by six gallons of water, as would most mature plants in an indoor cultivation operation, where plants are much smaller than the 10-foot-tall monsters Bauer and law enforcement encounter in the Northern California backcountry.

The best way to compute cannabis's water use, growers say, is to work backwards from its final output.

"We think: one gallon per pound, per day," says Hezekiah Allen, the Humboldt County native responsible for the six-gallon figure. As a representative for marijuana growers in Sacramento in his role today as executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, Allen has good reason to correct the record. "With a 150-day average growing season, that translates to 150 gallons per pound."

That would mean the Tulare plants, if fully mature and delivering a two-pound output, used closer to two gallons of water per day, not five as the lawmen contend.

Not every marijuana grower agreed with the one gallon per pound per day formula. Indoor growers interviewed by SF Weekly gave a range of water use, from about 150 gallons per pound to as much as 450 gallons per pound (assuming that the water from three 75-gallon flushing cycles was not recycled).

But even at 450 gallons per pound — or about one gallon per gram of finished product — cannabis is, pound-for-pound, one of the state's driest highs.

Consider: Three grams of high-grade cannabis is today enough to satisfy a dozen people. Compare that to other treasured California pleasures, like wine (between 14.2 and 15.3 gallons per glass, according to a UC Davis researcher), beef (110 gallons per quarter-pound burger), and almonds (the notorious one gallon per nut).

Not that all cannabis growers are environmentalists. Far from it. Marijuana cultivation certainly takes an environmental toll, and water wasters should be punished. But the public also needs realistic figures — something that has historically been lacking from law enforcement accounts, and absolutely needed today as the cannabis industry grows during these epic dry times.


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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