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By Mitchell Colbert The Leaf Online
California has been in a drought for the past four years. Most of the state has received under 10 inches of rain, meeting the criteria to be labeled a desert. This conundrum has made California a testing ground for a battle over water rights, where cannabis growers are being unjustly scapegoated as the culprits behind the worst drought the state has seen in over a millennium.
It all started when a recent study conducted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife found that illegal and unregulated cannabis growing could potentially be a threat to sensitive wildlife and their habitat. The researchers use many qualifying words in their study, because many of the facts aren’t sufficiently well-known to properly say how big of a threat cannabis growing could be to endangered species like the Coho salmon. Regrettably, most journalists reported on this uncertainty with headlines like “Pot is Making California’s Epic Drought Worse” and “California is in One of its Worst-Ever Droughts Because People Are Growing Too Much Weed.”
David Downs, with SFGate’s Smell the Truth, is one of the only journalists to get it right, properly recognizing that cannabis growing is a “tiny sliver of water use in the state.” The study estimates that the average cannabis plant takes 6 gallons of water every day. Chris Van Hook, founder of the Clean Green organic cannabis certification program, estimates that while plants begin taking about a gallon of water a month they can end up consuming nearly 15 gallons a day. Chris estimates that all the growing in Mendocino county consumes about 32 million gallons at the height of growing season.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife study found that,“In California, irrigated agriculture is the single largest consumer of water, taking 70–80% of stored surface water and pumping great volumes of groundwater.” Almonds alone consume 3 billion gallons per day, out of the 30 billion gallons used by agriculture every day in California; 10% of the total agricultural water use and 100 times as much water as Mendocino uses for cannabis growing.
California grows much more than just almonds. You may be wondering, just how much food does California grow? According to the California Department of Water Resources, California is the only state with the right climate to grow almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, raisins, kiwifruit, olives, persimmons, pistachios, prunes and walnuts. California also produces over 250 types of crops, leading the country in 75 of those.
With the current drought, it is hard to see California continuing to keep up its same rate of food production, which may further drive up prices. The drought has created a state of emergency and has led to state-wide water rationing. The April snowpack, which should be at its peak, is actually the lowest it has been recorded since 1950; a record low of 5% of average. 2014 was the third driest year in over a hundred years and the warmest year on record.
Before this current drought California saw another drought from 2009-2010. This previous drought wasn’t caused by natural causes or climate change so much as it was caused by short-sighted politics. A federal ruling to protect the endangered Delta Smelt caused water to be diverted from thousands of acres of farmland in the Central Valley. This led to entire orchards being left for dead or laid fallow, including precious almond trees like those shown above, which take over three years just to produce fruit.
Unfortunately, almond trees are not cannabis plants and don’t have a three month growth cycle. When those trees were killed by politics five years ago, the new ones planted to replace them didn’t even begin to produce almonds until the current drought was in full swing and water rationing was imposed. While endangered species like the Delta Smelt and Coho Salmon need to be protected, preservation must be balanced against the humanity’s need for water. As water gets increasingly scarce the political calculus at play will need to be re-evaluated. If better decisions aren’t made during this natural drought than during the self-inflicted one, those almond trees may never get a chance to fruit.
In response to the Reefer Madness panic over the minuscule amount of water being used for cannabis growing the legislature has released two bills, AB 243 and a similar bill in the Senate, SB 165. Both laws would strengthen existing laws governing cannabis farming and other illicit activities on public and private lands. The patient advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access, opposes both bills as they currently stand and feel patients are being unfairly scapegoated. ASA makes a good point considering other groups, like Nestle, are allowed to skirt legality to bottle millions of gallons of groundwater every year to sell bottled water back to the same people they took it from.
The real culprit behind the California drought isn’t outdoor cannabis growers, as much as it is every person who drives a car, everyone who doesn’t buy local or sustainable products, or indoor cannabis growers. In short, everyone who has ever contributed to climate change in any way. Indoor growing has a massive carbon footprint and greatly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions; in California, it is “responsible for about 3% of all electricity use.” Outdoor growing can be done in a sustainable way that uses closed loop systems, creating minimal environmental harms with relatively little carbon footprint.
Scientists have identified a new climate trend for California, and all other coastal areas like it, where they will get more erratic temperatures, less predictable seasons, and generally colder temperatures. This phenomenon is known as “Coastal Cooling;” it is even more intense in urban areas. Despite current warming, it appears that cooler and wetter weather could be in the future for California. As climate change intensifies, the West Coast will see more erratic weather and it is hard to say what it could mean for California’s farmers and everyone else who calls the Golden State home.