Prep time

Water board spokesmen outline how growers can ensure pot farms are environmentally up to par

‘This is a big year for you guys,” Trey Sherrell told a room full of Butte County cannabis growers last week at the Concow Grange. The response was some combination of excitement and apprehension. On the one hand, there are more tools now than ever for legitimizing the industry. On the other, it can be a lot to deal with all of a sudden.

But that was the point of the meeting of the Inland Cannabis Farmers’ Association (ICFA), to bring everybody up to speed on changes in California law. Sherrell, an environmental scientist with the Central Valley Water Board, had been invited along with his colleague, Michael Parker, engineering geologist, to discuss the ins and outs of their agency’s permitting process for cannabis grows. The goal was to provide a roadmap to legitimacy, a rundown of all the requirements to obtain the licenses and permits needed to grow commercial cannabis.

“Now, I realize we’re in Butte County, and that your ordinances are really strict,” Sherrell said to a roomful of nods. Truth is, though, the Board of Supervisors has yet to discuss whether to allow commercial cannabis. That topic is slated to come up sometime over the summer. So, in the meantime, ICFA President Jessica MacKenzie urged the group to get up to speed.

“Be prepared so you won’t be scrambling when the time comes,” MacKenzie said. Acknowledging that many cannabis farmers are naturally hesitant to deal with public agencies, she assured the two dozen or so in attendance: “The water board is not here to judge you based on what you grow. They’re here to help you protect the water.”

As background, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act in October 2015. It set the table for the cultivation, manufacturing and distribution of medical marijuana for sale. Part of the requirements under MMRSA were that the state water board set up a permit procedure to ensure the protection of the environment. The board’s main focuses are on use of surface water to irrigate plants; wastewater discharge; and land clearing and grading. In order to receive the water board’s stamp of approval, then, one must comply with all land and water regulations.

Those regulations are many. Just some that people might need (based on applicability):

• If damming a stream—generally considered a “big no-no”—apply for a lake and streambed alteration permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

• If irrigating using surface water, ensure pump intake is appropriate so as not to harm any marine life. Also, ensure water use is consistent with water rights—and submit timely reports to the Division of Water Rights.

• If on well water, get a well permit.

“You will have to show the state where your water comes from,” Sherrell said. “If you’re using surface water diversions, they’re going to want you to start a rainwater catchment system so you don’t have to pump as much during dry months.”

• If growing on a hillside, which is not ideal, use precautions to avoid soil erosion.

• If using fertilizers or pesticides—even if they’re organic—they must be stored, separately, in containers that will prevent seepage into the ground.

That’s just scratching the surface. But, for anybody in the agriculture industry, it’s really nothing new. Sherrell acknowledged that most of this information is for growers who have yet to put plants in the ground, as many of these permits are required before the work is done. Because of the underground nature of the cannabis growing community, however, some folks may be requesting approval retroactively. In some cases, Sherrell warned, there may be fines involved. (For a comprehensive list of requirements, including best management practices for growers, go to

While it might seem natural that Sherrell and Parker would be most concerned about protecting the water, Sherrell said in his experience, “the vast majority of pollution is from roads leading to the site. You’re trying to hide, so you put your plants way back in the hills. But then you had to carve a road to get there—that’s where we see a large amount of sediment and erosion.”

By the end of the two-hour presentation and discussion, most of the growers in the room seemed satisfied—few appeared overwhelmed or upset by the number of requirements. That changed during a discussion of pesticide use, when one member of the audience asked Sherrell, “Are the standards going to be higher on cannabis than other farmers, say, rice farmers?” Sherrell gave an emphatic yes. “There is greater pollution coming from other industries,” he said.

“Traditional agriculture has protections under the federal Clean Water Act,” he explained. “But marijuana is still a Schedule I drug and illegal federally. So, the state of California has all the leverage at this time.

“The state intends to make the cannabis industry the cleanest, greenest, most well-regulated industry in California,” Sherrell added.

Water board permits are based on the size and location of grow sites, Parker said. The fewer threats to the environment, the less the cost of the permit. They start at $1,000. In Butte County, growers cannot apply for water board permits at this time, though many of the other licenses and permits can and should be obtained, Sherrell said. The rules are strict, so “Anything you can obtain a permit for, do it.”