High in the foothills

Medi-pot grows under watch

A marijuana garden and a greenhouse off Crystal Ranch Road near Feather Falls.

A marijuana garden and a greenhouse off Crystal Ranch Road near Feather Falls.

Courtesy of butte county department of public works

Nearly three months after getting snubbed in an effort to get the state involved in monitoring marijuana-growing operations in the local foothills, Butte County officials continue to address the matter. Attention to the preparation of the pot gardens was triggered by the discovery of large-scale soil grading and the building of greenhouses on properties near Paradise, Magalia, Concow, Forbestown and Feather Falls.

The Butte County Board of Supervisors, after learning about the soil-grading operations, approved sending a letter to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) expressing concern about the environmental damage involved in the pot gardens. The letter asked that the state step in and help enforce the federal Clean Water Act.

“Butte County has its share of large marijuana grow sites,” the letter reads. “The development of these sites ha[s], in many cases, disturbed over one acre of soil and include[s] buildings and other improvements that support these large marijuana-growing operations without proper local and state permits.”

The letter pointed out that the state regulates mining, industrial and construction operations with strict guidelines, and that the same should be done for large marijuana gardens. But the state considers such operations agricultural, and thus exempt from some conditions.

Ken Landau, the assistant executive officer for the RWQCB, said in a May 24 phone interview that the board would not get directly involved in policing pot farms.

“Yes, there is a real issue with these marijuana operations,” he said. “However, our staff are not armed peace officers, and we cannot be sending them into places where their lives will be at risk. We will provide technical support on evaluating things, but they simply can’t be out on the front lines going into these places.”

In the meantime, said Mike Crump, director of the county’s Department of Public Works, a team made up of members of county’s Code Enforcement department, the Public Health Department’s Environmental Health Division and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office has been investigating the gardens in recent weeks.

“We are verifying the facts,” Crump said. “Regional Water Quality said they support us and we ought to invite them to come along on these visits.”

He said the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has shown interest in getting involved in the investigations as well.

“It’s not illegal in our county to grow medical marijuana,” Crump said, referring to a fairly restrictive county ordinance passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year in an attempt to appease both those in favor of legalized growing of medical marijuana and those against it.

Crump said at this point the county is still concerned about possible environmental damage associated with the grows and the chemicals often used.

“We are aware of that, and are looking for and have found evidence of the use of rodenticide,” he said. “And we are looking at the impacts of the grading and the drilling of illegal wells.”

County counsel and District Attorney Mike Ramsey are looking into other possible violations of environmental law, Crump said, and will be filing complaints.

Ramsey also noted the problem of un-permitted wells getting dug and drawing down water levels for existing wells. “We’ve heard of neighbors’ wells getting drawn down and starting to dry up,” he said. “It’s hard to show that wells drilled in the foothills affect nearby wells. There is no specific aquifer you are drawing from like there is in the valley.”

A resident of the foothill community of Cherokee contacted the CN&R via email to report problems with his well. (He asked not to be identified.)

“After keeping level records of my well over the last 17 years, I noticed they were much lower last year,” he wrote. “I called in a well driller to discuss a new well option, expressing my concern that our ‘local growers’ were depleting the water levels. He admitted that 80 percent of the new wells he has drilled in the past six months were for growers.”