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Legal or not, cannabis takes a toll on Northern California watersheds

Angela Johnston
Bryan McFadin and Jacqueline Matthews monitor one of 33 different locations in the Trinity River watershed.


Ben Durkee is a true Trinity local. He’s lived and worked in the Northern California county his entire life.  

“I grew up on a little creek on Ransom Road in Weaverville," he says. "We always called the creek the ‘wrong creek’ because it was near a two-house little dirt road that was labeled ‘The Wrong Road.’"

Wrong creek isn’t quite right



He remembers swimming there, splashing around with his friends and watching his neighbors tend to their bountiful fruit and vegetable garden with water from the creek.

But Durkee says, for the past decade, things on ‘wrong creek’ haven’t been quite right.

“It's been a dry riverbed for over 10 years now, and it's probably never going to come back, which is just really sad,” Durkee says.

Durkee works at a fishing lodge, which caters to visitors casting their lines in the Trinity River watershed.

“If there's no water for people to fish, my job doesn't exist,” he says.  

Like many people up here, Durkee believes one group is responsible for the loss of his childhood creek: Marijuana farmers, who are “damming up local creeks that are used as the primary water source for residences, effectively stealing that water for their own gain.”


There are thousands of cannabis farms near creeks in Trinity County, and Durkee thinks they may be to blame.


Forensic hydrology

Those creeks are where you’ll likely find water detective Bryan McFadin, up to his waist in freezing cold water, wading deep in what he dubs “forensic hydrology,” investigating Durkee’s concerns.

McFadin works for the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. A few years ago, locals approached him wanting to know why their creeks were drying up. To find out, McFadin and his team monitored the water flow at more than 30 locations up and down the Trinity watershed.

“A lot of people feel like cannabis cultivation is taking an extreme amount of water, and I don't know that that's the case, but that's part of why we're doing this project, to shed light on that,” McFadin explains as he zips up his fly fishing waders and he shuffles down the riverbank toward the stream.

The monitoring process

First, McFadin stretches a long tape measure across the width of the creek.

Then, he sticks a long metal pole into the water. It’s called a flow tracker, and it has a computer at the top and an acoustic sensor at the bottom.

Credit Angela Johnston

McFadin inches it along the tape measurer, recording the water’s velocity and depth at different increments across the creek. Those measurements, plus a little math, tell him the exact flow of the water moving by.


McFadin compares these numbers with the amount of water that historically flows through the creeks at the same time of year. Although his team hasn’t published their final report yet, it’s easy to tell where there are some big, big changes.

Back in the car, McFadin shows me some graphs.

“This red line is what we measured, the dotted line is what the equation predicts,” he says, “and so this deficit here tells us, ‘Hmm there is something going on here.”

In some spots this year, the flow levels plummeted. Someone, he says, emptied the creek, quickly.

“We can say, ‘Oh God, yeah, there’s something going on there.’ Basically what we see is right around the end of July, somebody turned on a pump ... shut it off, turned it back on, and basically flatlined the stream. It was to the point where we couldn’t really measure it, it was so low, just a thin film of water on the top,” he says.

In other places around the watershed, it’s worse.

“It is everywhere”

Post Creek is downstream from Trinity Pines, an extremely concentrated subdivision of cannabis farms packed on top of each other into the hillsides.

Trinity Pines, as seen from Google Earth.

You can see it from Google Earth — hundreds of beige pockmarks dotting the green landscape.


If you zoom in closer, you can see rows and rows of plants.

“It is everywhere. You can see that they've, in some cases, built terraces into the hillside to make room for the plants,” McFadin points as we drive through the subdivision.

What you can’t see from the car windows, you can smell.

“I would estimate we've driven past a few thousand marijuana plants in just the last few minutes, and I would imagine it’s a lot more than 1,000 plants that are back there,” he says.

Not everyone here takes water directly from the creek, but the past two summers, Post Creek dried up.

“It gives you a sense of the scale of the issue.”

More than just numbers

The implications are also huge, and far-reaching. After a day of monitoring, McFadin and I sit on the bank of the Trinity River and watch a fly fisherman cast his line into the water. A Chinook salmon slowly swims by our feet.

Credit Angela Johnston
A fly fisherman in Trinity River in Weaverville.

“He and his kin are a big part of what we're trying to protect,” McFadin says. “At one time, there were really large runs of fish like this that fed a lot of families and provided a lot for the local economy, and that isn't the case anymore. We'd sure like to turn that around.”

Photographs, water rights records, and data from the water board’s cannabis-permitting program show it isn’t only marijuana farmers diverting water from these habitats.

Traditional agriculture, and homes, use as much water in the Trinity region, McFadin says, but cannabis irrigation is just incredibly hard to monitor, and wasteful practices are difficult to correct.


“We've seen some really egregious things too where people just build the roads in the stream,” he says, “things that we hadn't seen since the logging days of the ‘60s.”

McFadin hopes his team’s data will help right these wrongs.

The water board’s already understaffed enforcement unit can use info about the most vulnerable streams to decide which water guzzlers they should patrol first.

And, he hopes it’ll encourage growers to get with the programs. If you want to grow recreational cannabis legally next year, you’ll need to get permits with the waterboard, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the county.

And depending on what you’re growing for, you’ll probably need one or more state permit, too.

“If they stay in the cannabis economy and they abide by the regulatory programs that are out there for cannabis, that are designed to protect the environment, then over time I think those things will get fixed,” McFadin says.

But, so far, waterboard enrollment numbers are on the low side.

Getting your marijuana farm up to code costs a lot of money — many farmers find it cheaper to stay under the radar, or just leave the business completely, and leave their mess behind, too.

Since, if you buy marijuana in California, there’s a good chance it’s grown here, McFadin says it’s ultimately up to the consumer to ask where their marijuana comes from.

“You should ask the question, and you should be interested if you're a cannabis user, because market opinions matter,” he says. “And if people don't want to buy marijuana that's grown with water that is impacting the environment, then I think marijuana cultivators will respond. If they're not able to sell it for as high a price as otherwise, that’s going to get their attention.”

Growing green

Down in Sonoma County, farmer Mike Benziger says that’s what his customers value.

“They're asking the right questions. More and more my customers are younger people who really understand that the environment is in trouble and that their kids, and maybe their grandkids, are going to be paying for the bad actors in the past,” he says as he takes me on a tour.

Benziger grows his 50 cannabis plants alongside persimmon trees, Swiss chard, eggplants, and other colorful fruit and veggies.

Credit Angela Johnston
Mike Benziger stands in front of his fruit and veggie plot.

“It’s a little banana belt. The sun always shines here, the birds always tweet. It’s a little bit like la-la land,” Benziger says.

His crops overlook the winery he used to own with his siblings. It’s where he started experimenting with biodynamic farming — a process that focuses on cultivating really healthy soil so farmers don’t have to use as many other resources.

He likes to think of it as the most advanced form of organic farming.

When Benziger was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, he and his wife wanted a change. So they left the winery and started growing produce and three types of medicinal cannabis.

“We grow a sativa called ‘Tangie,’" he says, "a hybrid called ‘Girl Scout Cookies,’ and a hybrid called ‘Bubba Kush.’”

When I visit, Benziger’s harvested it all. He’s drying and trimming the buds in the barn behind his house. He stops to show me their empty beds.

Watering on the plant’s schedule, not the farmers’


One of the things he’s most proud of is how little water he uses, thanks to soil-moisture probes that enable him to determine exactly how much water each plant needs.


“We are not just watering by formula, and we are not just watering from the seat of our pants, but we are watering because we are measuring and we know what the plants need. We know where the roots are so we can hold the water back until the last second,” Benziger explains.

Remember water detective Bryan McFadin? Research he’s done shows that many cannabis farmers water their plants with up to six gallons of water a day.

With these moisture meters, Benzigercut that to under two gallons.

“We can water only when the plant wants it, not when the farmer thinks it.”

Credit Angela Johnston
Benziger shows off his biodynamic soil.

Benziger also waters his cannabis, and all his other crops, with recycled water. He captures it from the roofs and stores it in giant green rain barrels.

This technology makes it easy for him to comply with new environmental regulations. Benziger installed this system years ago, not anticipating that starting in 2018, most cannabis growers in Sonoma County will have to use recycled water.

Indoor growers will have to use 100 percent renewable energy. Benziger’s got that covered too — a large plot of solar panels power his small indoor operation. While he says they are scalable at any size farm, he knows they’re not cheap.

“Let me put it this way — the expense is usually in building the infrastructure up front,” he says.

Now, they spend less on water, soil, and power. Benzinger says it cost him $50,000 to install his recycled water system — a high price for a small operation.

He thinks this is the reason why few growers have signed up for permits: only 127. He says, there could be as many as 8,000 farms in Sonoma County.

“So what's going to happen?” Benziger asks. “They're not going to go away, and it seems like some of these ordinances are so onerous that they're just driving the growers deeper into the woods, unfortunately.”

He thinks there should be more flexible regulations, and farmers with water-saving or composting systems should get tax breaks — rewards for growing with care.

That will help protect the watershed, and, he says, that’s what’s going to produce better marijuana, too.


Crosscurrents Cannabis
Angela Johnston is the Senior Producer of Uncuffed and an editor in the KALW newsroom. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and graduated from KALW’s Audio Academy program. She’s worked for KALW in numerous roles - from the deputy news director, to the health and environment reporter, and she's covered everything from lead poisoning to climate change. Her work has aired on KALW, KQED, Reveal, and The Pulse. She also freelances as a producer and editor for Cosmic Standard and AFAR Media. Outside of work, she loves to swim in the bay, surf small waves on her longboard, read, backpack, cook, and garden.