Effects of the Weed Industry on Humboldt County
The air moves slowly in the valley. The afternoon winds that rush through the clearings have yet to appear. Silence hangs in the immense forest. An eagle flies through the crisp air, gliding across the luscious green treetops of pines and firs. Ahead the river appears. A mass of vibrant rushing water winding for miles and miles along the valley carried by a bed of smooth stones and sand. However, something is different this year.
The river’s roar is not quite so loud. Along flat sections it slows to a crawl. Fuzzy green algae blooms in mass turning the the vibrant emerald water into a more sickly color of green. The eagle turns away in disappointment. No fish to find here. A dried up stream bed leads away from the river and up into the surrounding hills. A clearing stands in the midst of the forest. It stands out like a scar. The serenity of the valley turns sinister. No wildlife roams here, only men in search of profit beyond their means.
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Humboldt County has always had a reputation for weed. However this image is mostly limited to the small, single home backyard and indoor grows near the coast. In the past decade production in Humboldt has increased significantly. This has been termed as the “green rush” by locals. Entrepreneurs will buy plots of land, clear cut them, then promptly set up grows ranging from hundreds to thousands of plants. This cycle has harmful effects on the environment in Humboldt County. The landscape, watershed, wildlife and sense of community are all affected.
Many grows in Humboldt are new pop ups that are often not on the property of the person in charge of the plants. Because of this there is a lack of caring on the damage a grow causes to the landscape. The grow site is often ravaged. All plant life is eaten up by bulldozers and tractors that level the ground. No type of land management planning is used so these plots of land are left wide open to erosion. Trash is not disposed of but rather littered around the property and occasionally burned.
I witnessed a certain grow site which had completely destroyed all the brush and other plants in a gulch that had secured the hillside. The loose dirt that resulted came down into the stream bed. In the winter, a road nearby washed completely out due to the blockage. Because there are so many large and small grows in Humboldt patches of the landscape are being destroyed all over the place.
In addition heavy amounts of chemicals are used to optimize the harvest. Growers buy fertilizers and soil amendments in massive amounts. Springtime in Willow creek is often accompanied with the sight of massive flats of bagged soil sitting outside every garden supply and hardware store. Large quantities of pesticides are also purchased in order to keep wildlife away from the crop. At one of the grows raided by law enforcement in the Trinity Alps, “104 pounds of rodenticide, 560 gallons of insecticide and 8,188 pounds of fertilizer… , [and] 68 ounces of concentrated carbofuran, a substance banned in the U.S., [were] located” (Two River Tribune).
The Trinity Alps, located just to the east of Humboldt in Trinity county, is a classified as a wilderness area. According to the Wilderness Act in 1964 these areas are set aside for nature to continue uninterrupted by human involvement. In addition this particular site was home to the, “federally threatened northern spotted owl and the Pacific fisher, which was recently proposed for listing as federally threatened” (Two River Tribune). Having this kind of destruction present in a area that is protected federally on two different levels is ridiculous. What is the use of these laws if these growers are allowed to extort them due to the minimal enforcement in the area. The chemicals used by growers such as rodenticide are highly effective at killing nearby animals and often wind up in surrounding streams and rivers as runoff. This has wreaked havoc on the formerly pristine area.
All of these pollutants are creating an adverse effects on the local watershed. In the winter it is less noticeable, because of all the snowmelt and rain water that swells up the Trinity River, sending logs and other river side debris flying down the murky brown waterway. In the summer however, the river slows down. In the past few years the recent drought has caused very low water levels. As a result the river temperature has increased.
Fertilizer and other sediment runoff combined with slow moving warm water has created the perfect conditions for algae growth. Algae in small amounts is not very dangerous, but when masses of it form it can become lethal. Large amounts of algae blooms can lead to the formation of blue green algae which, “Produce extremely dangerous toxins that can sicken or kill people and animals” (EPA). In addition algae is known to lower the oxygen content of streams by releasing carbon dioxide into the water. (Two Rivers Tribune) This can lead to the formation of dead zones which are places in the water devoid of oxygen. All of these circumstances have lead to very hazardous conditions in the river for local freshwater fish.
In 2002 large amounts of water were diverted to desperate agricultural farmers under political pressure. This resulted in extremely low river flow rates and very warm river water. That summer the Trinity and Klamath rivers experienced a fish die off unlike anything that had been seen in the area previously. Thousands of dead and rotting fish washed up on the banks of the rivers. It is estimated that, “34,000 fish, mostly adult fall Chinook salmon, were dead in the Lower Klamath River” (Yurok Tribal Fisheries).
This massive fish kill was the result of river conditions similar to the ones seen in the past few years. In addition to algal blooms, “Overcrowding combined with warm temperatures [helped] spread parasites and diseases among the fish, like columnaris, ich (ichthyophthirius multifiliis), and gill rot” (Two Rivers Tribune). Ich is a parasite that causes white spots, loss of appetite, and abnormal hiding behavior. During the 2002 fish kill this parasite was the main culprit that caused salmon to wash up on shores already rotting from its effects.
One of the reasons that marijuana has lead to such an considerable impact on the local watershed is that it is a high water use crop. It is estimated that each plant uses about 22.7 liters of water per day. In addition Humboldt county, “Estimated plant totals ranged from approximately 23,000 plants to approximately 32,000 plants per watershed” (PlOS). (This may have been a underappoximation because the survey relied on aerial photographs to determine this number).
The optimal time to grow these plants occurs during late summer which is Humboldt County’s dry season. In a study by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) it was found that, “water demand for marijuana cultivation has the potential to divert substantial portions of streamflow in the study watersheds, with an estimated flow reduction of up to 23% of the annual seven-day low flow in the least impacted of the study watersheds” (PLOS). This has lead illegal marijuana grows to make a major impact on water inflows in Humboldt County.
In addition, according to Mike Kelly who has worked as a Endangered Species Act consultant, “Illegal marijuana grows are possibly the biggest current man-made impact to North Coast salmon populations in some rivers” (Kelly Interview). In order to combat the situation the state was forced to release water from Shasta Lake into the Trinity and Kalamath Rivers. After the long drought California experienced in the past few years this lake was down to just 27 percent of its capacity. The appearance of Shasta Lake during this time almost seemed reminiscent of an empty swimming pool. Large sheer faces of exposed dirt lead down to the little amount of remaining water in the reservoir.
Historically Pacific Salmon have been incredibly successful at producing offspring. NOAA fisheries biologist Mike Kelly says that their, “potential for high reproduction rates makes salmon populations resilient to periodic natural poor conditions” (Kelly Interview). This success has allowed tribes along the Trinity and Klamath river to periodically harvest these fish for centuries without endangering the species.
However recent loss of freshwater habitat has lead Pacific Salmon to lose this resilience. “they have experienced a double whammy of chronically poor freshwater conditions combined with the recent drought and El Nino. And weather conditions are only likely to get worse with climate change” (Kelly Interview). Normally salmon produce highly enough during years with good conditions that they are able to survive bad years. However recently there have been many repeating bad spawning years in a row. This has lead Pacific Salmon levels to plummet and left this species very vulnerable to extinction. This lack of available Pacific Salmon has impacted the local Native American tribes who depend on these fish for food and cultural purposes.
This year the predicted Chinook salmon run was so low that the Yurok tribe was forced to cancel their fishery. For a Tribe that has depended on these fish for hundreds of years this sudden halt has many consequences. After losing so much to the United States government the tradition of fishing for and eating Salmon is one of the few things the Yurok has retained. Many ceremonies and festivals involve honoring the river and the salmon it brings. In addition the state of California also canceled all salmon fishing commercial and domestic. These impacts to the local cultural and economy have the potential to devastate the already suffering region.
Many people were hoping that the recent legalization of weed in California would make it so that grows would have to be up to environmental code in order to be permitted. Unfortunately because of this most growers are just not getting permits and remaining illegal because it is more profitable. With around 15,000 grows it is estimated that only 15% have even begun the permit process(NECN News). Illegal growers in Humboldt have already encountered the problem of price deflation due to the competitive market. The market in Humboldt has gotten too large and competitive to be a very profitable business. However, in order to still make a profit growers have started to grow to sell out of state.
If the market and mass number of unregulated grows in Humboldt does not decrease, the environment will be in a state of crisis. More stream monitoring and enforcement is necessary to ensure that rivers receive maximum inflows. In addition more outreach to growers is needed to educate them on the impacts that their actions are causing. Overall this issue needs to receive more political and practical support in order to provide funding to the organizations that will carry out this enforcement and outreach.
The recent onslaught of illegal weed growing in Humboldt county has had an negative effect on the environment. These grow sites have created hazards to local wildlife and tampered with the stream ecology. This has lead the pollution of the Trinity, Eel and Klamath River. The streams that used to deliver these serene rivers with cold fresh water are now being used to water plantations. The lack of inflow and pollution has lead to increasing river temperatures and algal blooms.
These conditions are severely threatening local freshwater fish including the North Coast Salmon. This situation can be dealt with by more enforcement of pollution from illegal grows and habitat restorations. For the health of the community and the ecosystems surrounding it it is crucial that this issue is faced as soon as possible.