Running dry

Running dry

We’ve reported on how California’s illicit pot market has hurt the heavily taxed and regulated legal market. Expanding on that, agriculture reporter Kim Chipman this week follows up on her earlier reporting about water theft in California (see here) to look at how the industry is contributing to the state’s shortages. 

California’s stubbornly persistent illegal cannabis industry isn’t just undercutting the legal market — it’s also behind some of the world’s most blatant water theft.

The state’s estimated $8 billion underground marijuana industry consumes staggering volumes of the precious resource, despite the state legalizing recreational use back in 2016. Some participants have been known to truck in stolen water, while others take it from fire hydrants or dig illegal wells. Years of off-and-on droughts in the state have exacerbated the problem. 

“The amount of water stolen by the illegal cannabis industry is mind-blowing,” said John Nores, a retired lieutenant and former team leader of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Marijuana Enforcement Team. “We are talking millions and millions of gallons taken annually by these unlawful operations.”

An average cannabis plant requires as much as 5 gallons of water a day and takes anywhere from 90 to 275 days to grow, according to Nores. With some illegal operations housing on average 2,000 to 5,000 plants, “that’s a number with a whole lot of zeros,” he said.

It’s not just California seeing criminals profit from water theft. Similar actions have also decimated national-park lagoons in Spain and threatened to bankrupt farmers in Chile. Illegal water theft has even ensnared a former mayor in Brazil.

In California’s northern Siskiyou County, where there’s been a longtime heavy presence of illegal marijuana growing and drought conditions are among the worst in the state, Nores said he’s seen drilling of wells without permits and other obvious water theft. That’s making it even tougher on hay farmers and beef cattle ranchers, many of whom have had to sell off assets or go out of business altogether, said Ryan Walker, a rancher and president of the Siskiyou County Farm Bureau.

“We have alfalfa fields that are bone-dry but illegal marijuana grows are getting water and making harvest,” Walker said in an interview late last year. “Hundreds of water trucks are lining up to transport water to these illegal grows, many times right across street from agriculture facing unprecedented curtailments and new groundwater restrictions.”

Walker added that, even as excessive rains this year have eased drought conditions in the state, water curtailment worries remain in his region. “We are still definitely under water cuts this year,” he said.

The problem has also been identified in Nevada County, located north of Lake Tahoe. 

In 2021, at the height of the cannabis water theft crisis, officials estimated an annual loss of as much as 4,000 acre-feet of water amid reports of supplies being hauled in or groundwater being illegally pumped from the basin, according to Mojave Water Agency General Manager Adnan Anabtawi. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough water to submerge an American football field 1 foot deep.

California communities have made progress in addressing water theft and the situation has improved recently, according to those who are tracking the efforts. But it’s a problem that the state is going to continue to  struggle with — and has the potential to put the industry at loggerheads with the other crops and industries competing for the state’s limited water resources. 

“Water theft is an issue regardless of water levels,” Nores said. “Drought or no drought, water is being depleted not just in California but across the globe.”