Calaveras County Water District Director Bertha Underhill was surprised to find the parking lot nearly full when she arrived at the agency’s offices in San Andreas for Wednesday’s meeting.
The parking lot and the boardroom inside were packed because the main item on the agenda was a workshop on cannabis industry impacts on water quality and how state authorities regulate the industry.
“I read the directors’ information packet and knew there was going to be a workshop, but wow, I never expected this,” Underhill said as she surveyed the packed room. CCWD meetings usually gather only a handful of spectators and are over in less than two hours.
The agenda described the workshop as an “overview of state and local regulatory framework for protection of water resources from potential adverse effects of cannabis cultivation.”
The meeting went on for nearly five hours.
Representatives of both the state and regional water quality control boards and the Department of Fish and Wildlife were on hand to give presentations. Calaveras County Planning Director Peter Maurer discussed the status of county regulation of medical cannabis growers. Jason Boetzer, administrator of the county’s environmental management agency, talked about water sources, septic and irrigation systems and how the county will address potential failures. Caslin Tomaszewski, executive director of the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance discussed the local industry’s support for state and local regulations.
Director Dennis Mills, who will become District 4 Supervisor in January, said he hoped the workshop will make sure that the CCWD gets ahead of the issue and opens lines of communications with multiple agencies.
“I don’t want Calaveras to end up like Mendocino County where you have a wild and scenic river – the Eel – that is so polluted it can’t support fish,” he said.
Mills said keeping chemicals and fertilizers out of the streams and rivers is very important.
CCWD board Chairman Terry Strange said it is primarily the state and county governments’ responsibility to enforce pollution-related rules. “We have a small impact,” he said of the water district’s role.
A recently released database of cannabis farm registrants lists Terrance Strange as the applicant for medical cannabis farms at two different properties on Railroad Flat Road in Wilseyville. Strange did not immediately return a phone call Thursday about the cannabis farms.
CCWD spokesman Joel Metzger said he was unaware that strange had registered sites to grow medical marijuana.
Both county and state representatives described aggressive and comprehensive programs to regulate commercial cannabis cultivators and listed specific problems and their solutions.
“We have to be planning to have these farms around our water sources and it sounds like the state is on top of everything, except manpower,” said Director Jeff Davidson.
“If you have a law and you can’t enforce it, what’s the point of having the law?” asked Mills.
Both county and state spokesmen told the CCWD directors that they are in the process of adding more staff. The Board of Supervisors approved 27 new positions to oversee and enforce the county’s medical marijuana registration program and Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board enforcement officer Griffin Perea said 16 administrators and scientists are coming to his department. Adding staff is time-consuming and even though the hiring process may have started months ago, the rapid pace of the cannabis industry – harvest season begins in a few weeks – has outpaced government efforts to get new people trained and ready to police medical cannabis cultivators.
“For now we will investigate those cultivators that are most likely to be out of compliance,” said Yvonne West, senior staff council for the State Water Resources Control Board.
Perea offered a slide presentation that included the Central Valley board’s general order. Most of the water board’s work has been concentrated in the far northern part of the state, but with Calaveras County’s new regulation program, the state agency is taking notice.
The general order regulates the discharge of wastes from outdoor or mixed indoor/outdoor cannabis cultivation operations that occupy or disturb more than 1,000 square feet. It uses discharge prohibitions, discharge specifications and best management practices to reduce and eliminate water discharges from medical cannabis cultivators.
Perea listed the violations most often associated with cannabis cultivation: illegal water diversions, illicit grading, improper chemical use, discharges of domestic waste, threats to wildlife, timber conversion, and public safety.
“We’re working with code compliance to inspect sites,” said Boetzer. He said his workers look for illegal hazardous waste disposal and look at the water sources for farms.
“If it’s a well, how is the water getting from the well to the grow site? And is the grower using trucked-in water? If so, where is it coming from? The sites we’ve seen most have irrigations systems. If we don’t see an irrigation system, that puts up a red flag,” said Boetzer.
District 1 Supervisor and board Chairman Cliff Edson said that when he was first elected, he rode in a Sheriff’s Office helicopter and noticed a lot of pollution around grow sites.
“It’s one the things that drove me to regulation,” he said.
Edson said he wished the Board of Supervisors had organized a multiagency workshop. “But I’m happy we are all at this point. It’s all on the table and now we have to work it out.”
Edson said water protection is extremely important for Calaveras County, since the county’s watersheds provide a significant percentage of the state’s water.
Tomaszewski said that in Calaveras County, “One call can motivate 400 growers at a time. Most of the horror stories you hear – illegal pesticide use, grading and improper storage of chemicals – are not coming from CCA growers.”
“Seventy-five percent of our growers are trying to come into compliance,” he said. “The tools are emerging to identify these people (illegal growers) and we are all doing something about it.”
But he added that the reason growers have not invested in required infrastructure is “so far, every year things change.”
Mark Bolger, a cannabis farmer, director of the CCA and the first registrant to be certified by the county’s program, said water use for cannabis is “in line with other type of agriculture (such as) walnuts, almonds, apples, etc.” He said the rigorous registration and inspection requirements set up by the county and state water regulators will reduce the number of farms in Calaveras County.
“How do we get our arms around this and say we can enforce it?” asked Mills. He said a multiple agency approach could look at how farmers are impacting surface water and stream water.
Perea said state water board inspectors will not begin by looking at every site. “Those that are going to have a hard time coming into the compliance at all will go to the top of our list for inspection.”