Record CA drought hits illegal pot grows

From a story in last week's Ojai Valley News:

Three years ago, local narcotics officers eradicated about 168,000 marijuana plants from Ventura County's backcountry.

This year, they've found much less — closer to 100,000.

So is that good news or bad?

Neither, say law enforcement officials. California's historic drought is drying up more than just lakes and reservoirs, it's draining the creeks and aquifers far upstream — the ones that marijuana growers utilize to water their gardens, which often contain thousands of plants.

"We had one up in Coyote Creek … and half of the grow was abandoned," said Sgt. Mike Horne of the Ventura County Sheriff's Office (VCSO) Narcotics Bureau. "They're just running out of water." In another grow near the Ortega Trail, he added, "When we went to cut it, it was gone — the reservoir had dried up."

Arguably this is burying the lede. It's not a question of good news or bad news. It's simpler — the drought is devastating everyone, even the illegal farmers ready and willing to cut corners.We may recall the Biblical words from Matthew: the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Here's a new version: the drought hits the law-abiding farmers and the unlawful farmer alike.

More detail from Misty Volaski, editor of the paper, below the fold, with a pic from a back country grow in Rose Valley busted last month.  


Backcountry grows, Horne said, often utilize hundreds and even thousands of feet of irrigation lines. Growers will find a canyon with water in it, build a reservoir, and let gravity pump water through the irrigation tubes to the gardens. The fact that hundreds of thousands of gallons of water are diverted from their natural course is troublesome enough, Horne said, but "then they take those reservoirs and throw in Miracle Grow" and other fertilizers. The result? "That stuff soaks into the ground, into our water table," he pointed out. "Everything from Rose Valley south, all that drains to the Ventura River." 

Most of the fertilizers found at these illegal gardens contain nitrogen, which helps the plants grow but also pollutes the watershed and other sensitive wildlife habitats. According to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (LARWQCB), nitrogen is one of the chief pollutants in the Ventura River Watershed, for which the board is developing new water quality rules. It promotes the growth of algae, which creates fluctuations in dissolved oxygen levels and can kill or seriously affect wildlife. 

LARWQCB is compelling livestock and horse owners to keep manure — which has high levels of nitrogen — out of the Ventura River Watershed. It's also issuing new mandates to the Ojai Valley Sanitation District's treatment facility on Highway 33.

A 64-page report on the Ventura River Watershed from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mentions livestock, horses and the treatment plant more than a dozen times, but never mentions illegal marijuana cultivation as a potential source of nitrogen pollution.

According to Horne, at a garden with about 3,000 plants, it's not unusual to find six to eight 40-pound bags of nitrogen-laden fertilizers. "And they're all over the ranchers for using too much nitrogen in orchards, but they need to look at people growing dope up in the canyon, too," he pointed out. "These guys aren't using a tablespoon (of fertilizer) a week, they're using a cup."

Beyond water issues, there is no shortage of other environmental concerns. Poisons are often spread around the garden sites to discourage rats, rabbits, deer and other wildlife from eating up the profits. During VCSO garden eradication and reclamation efforts, dead animals are common. Some are shot to be eaten; others are shot to protect crops; still others are consuming the poisons. Officials don't take the carcasses as evidence, however, so exact numbers and causes of death are unknown.

Pesticides are also being used and are having similar effects. "There are some things (pesticides) they're bringing in from Mexico that are illegal here," said Horne of the growers. "It's bad stuff …They say don't touch this stuff, it's like nerve gas, it's so concentrated."

The combination of the pesticides, poisons and growers' bullets are also taking a toll on wildlife. VCSO officers have found two dead bears in Matilija Canyon this year alone. Though it's difficult to be sure, Horne and his team believe they were killed by growers, due to their proximity to gardens found in the area.  

"Bears are a real problem (for growers). They can demolish the camps," Horne explained.

Trash and food smells attract bears and other wildlife to the site, as well. "At a typical grow site, they might have three guys in it," Horne said. "Imagine how much trash is accumulated if they're living there from March to September."  Tents, sleeping bags, cook stoves, large propane tanks, food, human waste, all that trash — cleanup is a "monumental task," Horne explained, one that wouldn't be possible without state and federal grants.

And the threat to wildlife stretches farther than the boundaries of a garden and camp. Horne said he's been on eradications of other grows in the Sespe Wilderness — not far away from the California Condor Sanctuary where humans are prohibited. 

Then, of course, there are concerns about who's reaping the benefits of these grows. "Almost 0 percent of plants in big outdoor grows in the national forest have anything to do with medical marijuana," Horne said. "It's not Johnny Headshop who has his 10 plants to fix his headaches or to party with his buddies. These are big trafficking organizations financed or belonging to Mexican drug cartels. The people doing this are not just involved in marijuana, they're involved in cocaine, smuggling, methamphetamine, human smuggling. This is just another way to make money." 

A man recently arrested at a grow site confessed that he was a migrant worker and had been picking grapes for $60 a day. "But when they hire you as a (marijuana) trimmer, you can make $160 to $200 a day," Horne said. And the penalty for getting caught? "For their first offense, they'll get 180 days in jail … for a lot of people, it's worth the risk."

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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