Illustration by Tara Jacoby

Last Tuesday, the Humboldt County Courthouse in Eureka, California was swarming with potheads. A pro-cannabis rally had been organized by State Assemblymember Jim Wood, who knows how to grab headlines: In July, Wood walked onto the State Capitol floor carrying a live marijuana plant and asked his colleagues to regulate the heck out of it.


The very public pleas from Wood and others were finally heard: Three marijuana industry regulation bills were signed by Governor Jerry Brown on Friday. For the first time in California, there will be comprehensive rules governing the entire cannabis industry, with enough money to fund a large-scale effort at assessing and lessening the environmental impact of growing marijuana—including the way growers use water.

“Cultivators are going to have to comply with the same kinds of regulations that typical farmers do. So they’ll have to comply with all the environmental laws. They’re going to have to manage and procure their water in the same way and they’ll have to deal with pesticides the same way,” Wood said. “It’s going to be treated like an agriculture product.”


Marijuana regulation is going to have a massive effect on California’s water problems, but not in the way you might think. This is the state’s unique opportunity to start a new kind of economy-stimulating water policy from the ground up that also protects the environment. It’s a chance to orient the state’s water management towards a drought-proof future.

Regulating the marijuana industry will allow California to prototype new ideas for water which could trickle down to the rest of the state’s agriculture.

“Weed Is Sucking California Dry”

Although medicinal marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, the industry has suffered from lack of oversight from government officials. Farmers are inconsistently targeted for growing violations (which federal law still deems illegal, by the way). Earlier this year, a scathing environmental study accused some growers of diverting wild rivers, and the cannabis industry had a new problem: It became a scapegoat for the state’s water problems.


Publications scrambled to report the disturbing study by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that claimed to find marijuana growers stealing water. Of four Northern California watersheds examined, three were threatened by illegal diversions, including creeks that were home to protected fish like coho salmon and steelhead trout. From Vice to PBS came the breathless assessment that Californians’ pot habits might actually be exacerbating the drought. My favorite headline was that California had been left “high and dry.”

It’s not very difficult to frame the state’s burgeoning marijuana industry as public enemy #1 when it comes to drought. Farmers are governed by a checkerboard of loose local ordinances which vary from county to county. But while the study was meant to bring attention to the environmental impact due to water diversions, it also inadvertently highlighted the need for consistent, universal regulations across the state.

Outdoor marijuana plantings are marked in red and greenhouses are marked in light green in this survey of the Salmon and Redwood Creek watersheds. Image: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Since 2013 a group of environmental scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have studied the impact of marijuana production along several streams filled with threatened fish. They looked at high-res aerial photography to estimate the number of marijuana plants being grown along tributaries of the four watersheds in question, then compared those numbers with stream flow amounts. In three of the four watersheds, they concluded that the water demand of marijuana irrigation was having an severely adverse effect on amphibious habitat, in some cases reducing flow up to 23% in already-low streams.



But the department also needed to confirm their estimates on the ground. So working with the North Coast chapter of the California State Water Resources Control Board, which has a special team devoted to cannabis, the task force visited over 100 farms for surprise inspections, handing out a handful of minor violations as well as one major fine for $300,000. The initiative was named Operation Emerald Tri-County, nodding to the three heaviest pot-producing counties known as the Emerald Triangle.

A Scientific American story included a report from the field by DeWayne Little, a lieutenant with California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Watershed Enforcement Team:

“We have grows that are larger than ever,” Little testified during the hearing, which was also webcast live. “Streams are being diverted at an alarming rate.”

Little cited a recent example of a portion of stream his team encountered near Fish Lake in Humboldt County in which pot farmers were using PVC pipe, Dixie cups, funnels and even 2-liter Pepsi bottles to divert water for 5,000 plants.

“There literally wasn’t a drop of water left after that diversion,” he added.

Operation Emerald Tri-County also included a highly publicized raid on eight farms in Island Mountain in Humboldt County, where the team found serious environmental violations and discovered that all but one farm did not have the right documentation that they were growing for medicinal purposes. A staggering $26 million of pot was seized, making even more headlines, and angering cultivators who argued they were suddenly being unfairly targeted.


“Of course there are people who illegally divert from rivers,” one cultivator who asked to be called The Chancellor told me. “But the rest of us are taking the drought very, very seriously. All those the green lawns and swimming pools and almond farms—there’s a system set up to govern them. We’re an easy target.”

When it comes to water use specifically, it seems outrageous to hand out a violation when there was no clear definition of compliance. Some farmers might be doing the right thing, but without being required to be accountable in any way to the state, why would anyone believe them?

The Growing Industry

California is currently home to an estimated 50,000 pot farms. That’s not official, of course, since there’s no real way to count them, but it’s a number that’s universally agreed upon by several state organizations I spoke with. About 60 percent of all the weed grown in the US comes from California, and although there are no sales numbers, it’s easily a billion-dollar industry.



For some comparison, there are about 4,000 wineries in the state. Just in Northern California’s Humboldt County alone—home to the highest density of marijuana production in the state—there are about 4,000 pot farms.

Although the Emerald Triangle has been known as weed-growing region for decades, in 1996 Proposition 215 legalized marijuana for medical use in the state, which changed the legal landscape significantly. The big busts that you read about now are usually crackdowns on “trespass grows”—people planting on public lands. As any cultivator in the area will tell you, even if you can’t prove you’re growing for medicinal purposes, small farms have been largely tolerated, as long as they’re on private land.

A small growing operation in Mendocino County. AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

I say small “farms” but even that is a misnomer. These are obviously not the typical Big Ag operations with tractors grinding through hundreds of acres of crops. A majority of the marijuana cultivation is happening in the stereotypical way you might envision it: A cluster of plants—20 or so—tucked into a verdant redwood forest. Some growers might be producing enough to invest in infrastructure like drip irrigation and greenhouses. But many are simply relying on whatever precipitation falls from the sky. Which lately, has been less and less.


However, weed is a cash crop like no other — if you have the water to grow it. A report by the University of Denver’s Water Law Review gives a detailed economic breakdown of growing marijuana vs. growing potatoes on the same amount of land. All of the cost is built into water, but the “return” for marijuana is much higher, says editor Nicholas Rising. “The cost of obtaining water sufficient to maintain the marijuana growing operation may constrain production, but clearly, there is an economic advantage to growing weed.”

And one more kind of obvious thing: It hasn’t been taxed. So if you can get the water you need, you can benefit far more from growing marijuana than growing pretty much anything else. There’s no real barrier for entry, no permits to be procured, which is why so many people are getting into the pot business. It’s also why some people—not all—take desperate measures to procure water. The industry is growing, and if left unchecked, there would certainly be irreversible damage inflicted upon the state’s natural resources.

A Thirsty Crop?

Cannabis is not native to California, it’s indigenous to regions of Central Asia and Northern India that get a lot of rain. The same criticism that we’ve begun to levy upon California farmers who grow non-native crops like rice, for example, might be fair game. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife study notes that it takes twice as much water to grow marijuana as it does to grow wine grapes (although, to be fair, wine requires additional water to actually process those grapes into wine).



It’s hard, however, to determine exactly how much water is needed to grow pot. The thing about marijuana is that cannabis plants vary widely in size, and thus so does their water usage.

Unlike, say, an almond tree, which needs to be planted outdoors and usually reaches a fairly standard height, cannabis can also be grown indoors, where plants are smaller but sometimes more productive, says Scott Palmer, CEO of Kiva Confections, a San Francisco-based company that creates cannabis-infused chocolate products. “You may see mature plants in an indoor cultivation as short as three feet or even smaller, while an outdoor cultivation can grow plants that are over 15 feet in height—literal trees. So it’s hard to peg down a specific number when it comes to water consumption.”

The study by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that marijuana plants used about 5.8 gallons of water a day, a number that seemed on the high end to the marijuana industry people I spoke with. The study even admits this: Their estimates were based on hydrology estimates, not metering. One of Kiva’s outdoor cultivators whose plants were expected to reach 10 to 11 feet at maturity estimated water usage at about five gallons a day. But other cultivators I spoke with—especially those who were rationing due to the drought—were using far less per plant.

Watering young plants at a Sacramento dispensary. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

One cultivator, who wanted to be called Dr. D, gave me a breakdown, which he knew down to the drop because this year he had to buy water to keep his plants alive. In early summer, Dr. D says that he bought water eight times at 2,600 gallons each time, which worked out to 20,800 gallons purchased. He had 99 plants in a greenhouse and watered each plant two gallons per day for 12 weeks (84 days) which means he used 16,632 gallons of water. After 12 weeks he harvested and had 115 pounds of marijuana to sell.


If you go by what he says he watered (two gallons per day), it works out to 144.6 gallons per pound or 9 gallons per ounce of weed. If you go by what he bought, that works out to 180 gallons per pound or 11 gallons per ounce of marijuana. You have to imagine you lose quite a bit of water to evaporation or in transfer or if he watered extra on a particularly warm day. We could say 11 to compensate for other farmers who might water a bit more.

All of this is to prove that, if grown responsibly, weed is not outrageously water-intensive, but also it shows how some growers are already extremely diligent about saving water. There are plenty of tips posted on grower message boards for building rainwater catchment systems and mulching techniques to hold in moisture. The Chancellor says there’s also been a lot of talk about developing more drought-resistant plants. “One thing we’ve been curious about is using grafts,” he says. “Taking maybe a drought-resistant indica and using the rootstock to graft sativa onto it.”


For some growers, the lack of water took a backseat to another drought-related disaster this summer, as the northern half of the state swirled with wildfires. After his initial comments, Palmer emailed me later to tell me that one of his growers had lost his entire 2015 crop as well as his home and personal possessions. The family had been on the farm for 30 years.

Regulate Us, Please

No matter who I talked to for this story, from dispensary owners to cultivators, I heard the same thing when it came to regulations: Everyone desperately wants to be compliance with the law. The three bills—Assembly Bill 243, Assembly Bill 266, and State Bill 643—will create a Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, start labeling and testing all marijuana products, and set up a licensing and permitting system for growers by 2018. This is the most important part of the regulations because it includes a way to enforce them.


A few years ago Mendocino County enacted its own permitting system for registering marijuana farms, which seemed to work relatively well. But it’s difficult for law enforcement to stay on top of things like inspections, especially for a program that has no funding. Lately, all oversight has been falling to environmental groups like the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the regional water boards, which, suffice it to say, already have plenty of work to do. (The water boards could not comment on pending legislation.)

An example of an illegal diversion in Sequoia National Forest near Fresno. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

The biggest impact that the three bills will have is creating a dedicated cannabis industry team consisting not only of law enforcement officials, but also more scientists, says Scott Bauer, Senior Environmental Scientist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the lead author of the game-changing watershed study. “This is the potential for us to have a larger force, which to me would be the most critical element. If there’s more personnel, it will help us regulate water use.”

Clearly defined oversight has many benefits. Writing in Rolling Stone, S.E. Smith argues that just the simple act of regulation will help farmers to choose more responsible methods for where and how they grow their crops: “Permitting legal growth of marijuana encourages grows to come down from the hills, abandoning ecologically vulnerable areas that aren’t suited for agriculture.”


But there’s another risk for suddenly applying regulations to what has thrived as an essentially black market industry for decades, according to a study by Ryan Stoa, a Senior Scholar at Florida International University who specializes in environmental and natural resources law.

He spent the last few months interviewing cultivators and scientists throughout the Emerald Triangle and believes that some regulatory water rights issues still need to be worked out—especially because so much of the state’s meager rain falls in those northern counties where pot cultivation is expanding. “If you take a really heavy-handed approach to regulation, people will stay on the black market,” he says. “Regulators need to find that delicate balance between regulations that protect the environment while providing incentives for farmers to participate.”


There’s very little precedent here. In Washington, for example, part of their legalization policies included allowing cultivators to use groundwater without a permit (tapping the already overtaxed groundwater system is not an option for much of California). Colorado, on the other hand, has no water legislation specifically for marijuana cultivation.

Serving as a Model

By the end of next year, it’s possible that 16 more states will have legalized recreational use of marijuana, including California, which will likely have it on the November 2016 ballot. As part of that legalization process, every state will have to decide how to allocate water fairly to help those operations grow. But what California’s doing now could make it a policy leader.


There’s language in the new state bills which encourage the growth of small businesses—for now, farms will be restricted to an acre in size. This will help to conserve water and reduce impact, but this also promotes biodiversity. The monoculture approach has been a huge criticism of the corporate entities which farm much of the state, especially when it’s water-intense food like almonds or alfalfa. Too much of one crop isn’t good for the state (even if it brings in a shit ton of money).

New products like Kiva’s cannabis chocolates are helping to position marijuana to be more like wine than weed. Image: Kiva Confections

In California there’s talk about turning the weed industry into something more like the wine industry, with regions divided into appellations and development incentives that encourage tourism. If that’s the model the state chooses, they actually have a very good water policy model from establishing the state’s fledgling wine industry a few decades ago, says Bauer.

“The cannabis industry says they’re being picked on, but in wine country we spent a lot of time with vineyards permitting water use and getting them to store water,” he says. “If the growers were to capture water in the wintertime and store it, one if the biggest water issues would be dealt with. Every site we go to, almost everybody doesn’t have enough storage.”


That also hints at another big lesson that all farmers need to learn in this new era of conservation, where drought is normal and you can’t rely on surface water. Reconfiguring the state’s arcane water rights could allocate water more fairly to more farmers and force some who are accustomed to limitless supplies to think seriously about how to save and store water. By being forced to plan ahead from the beginning, marijuana growers could lead the way with better solutions that might be adopted by other agricultural products.

California’s lawmakers have a real opportunity to put smart policies in place that will determine how the state appropriates water to this billion-dollar crop. If and when pot’s totally legalized, this would help govern a new era of responsible water management—ensuring that the state’s natural resources are protected while fueling what will likely be California’s biggest income-generating industry of all time.