By Caleb Dardick
California’s current “Green Rush,” which has attracted many people to grow medical marijuana, or cannabis, in the Yuba River watershed, is facing a backlash: the Nevada County Board of Supervisors has recently passed a ban on outdoor cultivation or “grows.”
While most of the attention surrounding cannabis cultivation has focused on medical, economic, or social impacts, the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) calls upon our community to make sure that the environmental impacts on the Yuba River are not overlooked. For 33 years, SYRCL has been focused on protecting the river, so our interest in this controversial issue has to do with watershed health.
The environmental impacts of unregulated, large-scale cannabis cultivation are real. The overuse of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides pollutes the water and poisons wildlife. Illegal water diversions result in dry creeks. Deforested and poorly graded land damages habitat for native fish and wildlife. So-called “trespass grows” on public lands have wreaked havoc on the landscape.
It’s been said that a ban will protect the environment and if no one grows outside, then all these negative environmental impacts will simply disappear. To us, that sounds like wishful thinking. It’s denying the reality that cannabis cultivation is not going away. It’s also ignoring the likelihood of statewide legalization in the very near future.
Instead of disappearing, the ban is likely to drive cannabis cultivation back underground, depriving responsible farmers the opportunity to grow within a framework of rational land use rules and regulations. Rather than protect our environment, it seems far more likely that the ban will exacerbate bad environmental practices on public and private land.
We’d hoped that County leaders would work closely with stakeholders to regulate outdoor cannabis cultivation like other agricultural crops in a manner that strictly protects water quality, fish and wildlife. It’s not too late for Nevada County to roll up its sleeves and develop proactive, local solutions to protect the environment. The good news is that the State of California is working to develop a comprehensive framework to regulate cannabis cultivation and protect our water that could serve as a model for the County.
To be clear, SYRCL is not taking a position – pro or con – on the upcoming ballot measure. SYRCL is not “for” or “against” cannabis cultivation either. But we’re river lovers, so we are going to speak up for the Yuba.
SYRCL has always believed that one way we can help is through education. Nevada County has long been a center for organic, sustainable agriculture. So we’ve organized educational workshops to demonstrate how responsible agricultural practices can protect the environment.
We invited the public to attend SYRCL’s 2nd Annual “Growing Green for the Yuba,” which took place on March 19th. This daylong informational workshop with local and regional experts highlighted practices for cannabis cultivation that will safeguard the Yuba watershed. The workshop presenters addressed a variety of topics including water management systems, soil health, nutrient use, and pest management. There was also a panel discussion focused on local and statewide regulations. Additionally, we plan to host regular public “best practices” workshops throughout the year.
History teaches us that every new economic “rush” from hydraulic mining to clear-cutting has had profound impacts on the Yuba River over the past century and a half. Let’s be forward-thinking about sustainable solutions to regulate cannabis cultivation that will protect the watershed and comply with land use and environmental laws.
Caleb Dardick is the Executive Director of SYRCL, the South Yuba River Citizens League, which has united the community to protect the Yuba River since 1983. To learn more about SYRCL or “Growing Green for the Yuba,” visit www.yubariver.org/marijuana.
This article was originally published in the Union on 3/26/16.