The story of marijuana farming and the environment in Hayfork is one of aggregate impact. There are an estimated 2500 marijuana gardens in Hayfork and it’s Trinity Pines subdivision. At an average garden size of 125, that totals an estimated 250,000 marijuana plants. The average marijuana plant consumes 5 gallons of water per day. That means there are an estimated 1,250,000 gallons of water being used to farm each day. In an outdoor growing season, from April to October, a conservatively estimated 113,750,000 gallons of water is used annually for farming in Hayfork alone.
Unsurprisingly, water has emerged as a key issue in Hayfork and Trinity County. Marijuana farming has developed into a large agricultural industry that demands water at a scale the land can’t support. In the recent drought years of 2014 and 2015, streams, rivers, and wells ran dry at a record rate.
In Hayfork much of the population gets their water off-district, from sources like streams, creeks and wells. During the last two years of extreme drought, people started running out of water. Not just water to farm, but water for the basics like drinking and bathing. Local businesses reported water thefts as people without water began creeping into town in the middle of the night to steal it by filling water tanks using hoses and spigots. Legal disputes over water rights began cropping up throughout town. Water survival stories, like retirees lugging 5 gallon buckets of water to bathe and flush their toilets, or people going without showers, were common.
“I saw an 80-year-old man who lives alone and on a fixed income, cutting a tiny trench in the stream bed to bring a trickle of water to his pump so he could flush his toilet and wash his dishes,” says Josh Smith, a Watershed and Fisheries Biologist who has conducted extensive restoration and stream monitoring work in the Hayfork Area.
Scarcity caused many residents who rely on streams for water to point fingers at each other, and marijuana farmers, the obvious new and major water consumers, became a target.
“Groups of landowners started rallying together and threatening to government agencies that if action wasn’t taken that they would personally start marching up and down the creek knocking down marijuana grower’s dams,” says Smith, “when people run out of domestic water, things start to get real and a somewhat primal defense mechanism exposes itself.”
In the midst of this loud and chaotic competition for resources, there are others, largely overlooked, who are running out of water: fish. There are two at-risk species of salmon that live in rivers directly fed by tributaries in and around Hayfork: The spring chinook salmon and the coho salmon. These fish are threatened and have few places left in California where they can survive, the Hayfork region being one of the few refuge areas remaining for them.
Unbridled marijuana production is taking a serious toll on this rare remaining area fish habitat. The fallout of unregulated agriculture is multifaceted: it comes in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, and sediment concentrated within streams, the leeching of inputs such as petrochemicals and pesticides, and the construction of the farms themselves, often involving clear-cuts and land leveling that contribute to sediment run-off and forest fragmentation.
The forests of Trinity County have already been taxed by the mining and logging industries. At a time when the sum total of human impacts were already threatening fish habitat, the addition of marijuana farming impacts are making it perilously hard for fish to survive, in particular the spring chinook salmon. This is illustrated by the numbers: Hayfork Creek, the main river cutting through the Hayfork valley, is a tributary to the South Fork Trinity River, home to one of the few remaining spawning grounds for the spring chinook. In the 60s, fish surveys in the South Fork Trinity River counted more than ten thousand spring chinook. The 2015 fish surveys for the South Fork Trinity counted only 91 spring chinook. Only 91.
Hayfork is embedded in the Shasta Trinity National Forest, the largest National Forest in California. It’s nucleus of marijuana farming is surrounded on all sides by forest service lands that are home to four at-risk species: The spotted owl, the pacific fisher, and the aforementioned spring chinook and coho salmon. The Shasta Trinity is impacted by private land farming, and is also home to it’s own marijuana troubles. Forest Service lands are afflicted with trespass grows, illegal large-scale marijuana farms located on federal lands and typically operated by drug cartels. A significant source of environmental degradation, these grows disturb a landscape already taxed by past resource industries, and pose a particular threat to the pacific fisher, currently listed as at-risk of being endangered.
The landscape of Trinity County, lush and wild, is adding the injuries of marijuana farming to its long history of natural resource exploitation. Today, farming on private lands, contested and evolving, and the gritty damage of trespass grows on public lands present new and complex threats to the region’s natural environment.
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In practice, the impacts of marijuana farms depend on many variables– farming methods, location, water source, size. Farmers have varying degrees of awareness or concern for the environment around them. Some pursue environmentally sustainable courses of action, some do not. Some don’t because they don’t know their actual environmental impact, and others don’t because they simply don’t care. The ultimate outcomes of this dynamic will be dictated in many ways by the development of production standards, decisions about land use, and the ability to enforce them.
The health of Trinity County’s land, water, and wildife is hanging in the balance between a lack of regulation and the future form of an industry. The sustainability of the marijuana industry, yet to be determined, will play a role in the long-term health of the land, community, and the survival of the spring chinook.