Spotlight Nov. 2022: Illegal Cannabis Grows Pose Varying Threats to Member Agencies

  • by ACWA Staff
  • Nov 18, 2022
  • Newsletters

A photo of an illegal cannabis grow within the Brooktrails Township Community Service District that included an illegal water tank. Photos courtesy of Brooktrails Township Community Services District

At one point, aerial photography and mathematics confirmed Mojave Water Agency’s worst fears about the impact of illegal cannabis growing operations within its territory.

Photos showed a landscape littered with hoop houses, the makeshift greenhouses used to grow marijuana by legal and illegal growers alike, the latter in this case. Calculations based on acreage and known water consumption for growing the plants revealed that an estimated 4,000 acre-feet of groundwater had been stolen in one year.

That was just one of many data points generated by Mojave Water during the past two years that illustrate how illegal cannabis growing is impacting the San Bernardino County water agency. Large scale water theft from illegal groundwater pumping is bad enough during the ongoing drought, but contamination from banned pesticides, human waste and garbage dumping at the illegal grows have magnified the scope of the problem. That doesn’t include threats of violence against agency workers, whose names have been removed from Mojave Water’s website as a safety precaution.

“This has been a very big issue in our area between the water theft, contamination and illegal cartels,” said Mojave Water General Manager Allison Febbo.

Febbo added that loss from water theft alone could drive decisions to import more water, which in turn could lead to increased rates in an area where 65% of the population is considered economically disadvantaged.

Mojave Water may be one of the most severely impacted by illegal cannabis operations, but water agencies throughout the state are contending with challenges from illegal cannabis grows and ACWA has supported legislation to address the problem.

ACWA Advocacy

During the past two years, ACWA has favored or supported six bills in the California Legislature pertaining to illegal cannabis cultivation. All but one died in committee, but AB 1138 (Rubio) was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021. Now, a civil penalty can be imposed on people aiding and abetting unlicensed commercial cannabis activity up to three times the amount of the license fee for each violation.

For its part, the state is also ramping up enforcement. Newsom recently directed the creation of a new multi-agency, cross-jurisdictional taskforce of enforcement agencies designed to better coordinate agencies combatting illegal cannabis operations and transnational criminal organizations, according to an Oct. 5 news release from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

If successful, such a task force could help local law enforcement, who water agencies describe as doing all they can, but are often overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of illegal cannabis grows.

Northern California Impacts

As part of the Emerald Triangle, Mendocino County is in the historic heartland of cannabis cultivation.  Water theft is also an issue at water agencies such as Brooktrails Township Community Services District, where staff members keep an eye on water users who exceed a 9,000-gallon monthly cap, which can trigger penalty fees. 

A recent example of illegal grows included an operation that consumed 38,000 gallons over a month, according to Brooktrails Township General Manager Tamara Alaniz. Varying from month to month, about 20 illegal grows exceed the cap annually, according to Alaniz, who said local law enforcement handles illegal grows on a triage basis, going after “the worst of the worst.” 

In neighboring Lake County, the Hidden Valley Lake Community Services District has experienced some issues with water theft inside the gated community comprising the majority of its service area, said Hannah Davidson, a Water Resources Specialist I with the district. This has included an illegal grower from outside the community with gate access who tapped into a fire hydrant and stole about four to five truck tankers of water. Last year, a vendor was collecting bulk water and redirecting it to an illegal grow, getting away with about 10 to 15 tankers.

“We have never pressed charges and water quality sample results around the times of the incidents have never come back hot. However, we’re always on alert because we are in a prime growing region and there are a number of illegal grows throughout the county,” Davidson stated, by email.

While impacts from illegal cannabis grows vary throughout the state and among water agencies, the issue remains one that ACWA advocacy is ready to engage on as a new legislative session takes shape.

“We’re very aware of this issue as a top concern for a number of ACWA member agencies and will look to support measures that can mitigate the threat illegal cannabis grows pose to water supply and quality,” said ACWA Director of State Relations Adam Quiñonez.

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