California Marijuana Growing Drought

A newly released study from California Department of Fish and Wildlife is showing that the increasing number of marijuana grow sites in Northern California is contributing to the states drought woes. And in many cases, water demands are exceeding the streamflow of local creeks, which if allowed to continued at the current rate, would result in these streams going dry in the near future.

Scott Bauer, the lead author of the study and senior environmental scientist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife Watershed Enforcement Team:

“All last summer we ran around looking at streams”

“We’ve been monitoring stream flows and we’ve been seeing streams dry up, streams where a lot of marijuana is grown.”

“The demand for cultivation exceeds stream flow, and we can’t have that happen again, that is why we all have to work together”

Some data noted in the study:

  • Estimate of cannabis plants in each watershed: 23,000 to 32,000
  • Each cannabis plant uses approximately 22.7 liters, or about 6 gallons, of water per day
  • Aggregate water usage for each watershed: 523,144 to 724,016 liters per day

*” These totals come from a combination of outdoor plants counted from overhead and an estimated number of plants in greenhouses, also counted from above. Estimates for the amount of water used per plant per day were based on calculations from the 2010 Humboldt County Outdoor Medical Cannabis Ordinance draft.”


The environmental impact of cannabis grow sites has taken on greater urgency as California faces it’s fourth year of drought. With the state recently imposing water restrictions, the call to regulate water usage by marijuana growers is increasing.

California legislators are trying to address the problem with a bill, “The Marijuana Watershed Protection Act” introduced by Assemblyman Jim Wood, which would bring “cannabis farmers into environmental compliance”.

“My bill is really focused on trying to find ways for medical marijuana cultivators to comply with a lot of the things that traditional agricultural has to,” Wood said. “In many ways, it is aimed at trying to educate those that are cultivating — learning the value of water storage, how you can have a lesser impact in the watershed in that way.”

The bill is currently in committee and will have no impact to improve the situation this season. In the meantime, some California counties, including Humboldt, have instituted a pilot program that essentially mirrors certain provisions of “The Marijuana Watershed Protection Act” in hopes of alleviating the current crisis.

The pilot program provide for inspections of medical marijuana grow sites in those counties to educate and evaluate whether they are using sound environmental cultivation practices.  The ultimate goal is to create a permitting system, currently in the vetting process, which would spell out regulations to protect the environment.

A draft of the permit should be available for public comment in April and the goal is for cultivators to be enrolling in the permitting program by early summer.

“There is no reason people have to wait for the permit to have a responsibly managed site,” Cris Carrigan (director of the State Water Resources Board Office of Enforcement) said. “The permit will formally spell out what is prohibited, but people should already have the information.”

A town hall meeting is planned for April which will focus on the issue of medical marijuana grow sites, water diversion, and the environmental impact.

With the current water situation in California, people will begin to look for scapegoats to blame for something that has been building for many years. The drought is now in its fourth year without any significant measures having been taken to address the looming water shortage. It is now hitting Californians where it hurts, water restrictions. Whether the study and its assumptions are valid, going “green” for the cannabis industry as a whole is probably a good thing, since it will remove another impediment to full legalization.

Full Study: “Impacts of Surface Water Diversions for Marijuana Cultivation on Aquatic Habitat in Four Northwestern California Watersheds


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