Cannabis Growers Start Enrolling in Water Quality Program

As of last Friday, some 200 North Coast growers had enrolled in a new state program aimed at protecting water quality from the impacts of marijuana cultivation on private lands — quadruple the number that had enrolled just a week before.

And a number of others had submitted paperwork indicating that they intended to enroll.

“Two hundred have paid [their enrollment fees] with a check. And many more who have not paid with a check have submitted a Notice of Intent,” said Connor McIntee, an environmental scientist with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“There are lots of applications that are not complete or haven’t been inputted. I would expect [the number of enrollees] to continue to go up in coming weeks,” added Diana Henrioulle, a senior water resource control engineer with the regional board.

“I think we’re going to be very busy over the next few months based on the number of phone calls we’ve been getting from landowners. We’ve been getting multiple calls per day,” chimed in Kathy Moley, a senior geologist with Pacific Watershed Associates, a McKinleyville “third-party provider” firm that will be assisting growers with getting compliant.

Henrioulle said the number of enrollees might be greater at this point — one week after a Feb. 15 sign-up deadline — were it not for the fact that “an electronic interface to sign up directly is not yet available.”

As a result, water board staffers have been taking the application forms — which have come in through email, regular mail or drop-off — and “putting them into the database manually.”

“It’s been a bit of a choke-point,” Henrioulle confessed. Nonetheless, she said: “I’m happy with the number [of enrollees] we have so far.”

The fact that the Feb. 15 deadline has come and gone does not mean that it’s too late to sign up because the program has an “open enrollment” policy, as McIntee put it. What it does mean, he said, is that “enrollment is required now. If you’re not enrolled, you’re considered in violation.”

Participation is critical to the success of the program. While initial funding was provided by the State Legislature, over the long term operating revenue will come from fees ponied up by growers.

The new regulatory regime is part of a larger “pilot strategy” that water board staff developed in conjunction with the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The standards apply solely to the North Coast region — in other words, to the relatively narrow but long swath of land running from Sonoma County to the Oregon border.

The new permitting program places growers in one of three “tiers” based on the size of the operation and the threat posed to water quality. Tier 1 applies to gardens up to 5,000 square feet in size that pose a low risk based on certain physical characteristics, such as steepness and proximity to surface water.

Tier 2 operations are simply those that do not meet Tier 1 requirements, perhaps because they are too large or are located on steep ground or are unduly close to streams.

Because their operations present a higher threat to water quality and water resources, Tier 2 growers will be required to prepare a water resource protection plan that would detail water use, erosion control and practices to stop fertilizer runoff from reaching watercourses.

“It’s a management tier,” explained Matt St. John, executive director of the regional board, in an interview last year. “In addition to meeting basic water quality requirements, [Tier 2 growers] will need to tailor an approach that’s specific to their site.”

As for Tier 3, St. John called it “a cleanup tier [meant for grow operations where] there’s environmental damage that needs to be cleaned up.”

The types of damage that would place a grow operation in Tier 3 include filled watercourses or wetlands and steep-cut slopes and roads that cannot be stabilized to prevent erosion directly into waterways.

St. John said Tier 3 is reserved for properties where things were done “without proper engineering design, so you’ve got roads blowing out or roads crossing streams and putting culverts at risk of plugging up.”

To bring an operation into compliance, growers in Tier 3 need to hire a qualified civil engineer or geologist to prepare a cleanup and restoration plan.

As for the fees, they vary depending on the tier. For those in Tier 1, the annual fee is $1,000. Tier 2 growers must pay $2,500 yearly, while the fee annually for those in Tier 3 is a hefty $10,000.

The fees can add up to a serious level of financial support for the fledgling program. McIntee said last week that if 500 growers were to sign up and half of them were Tier 1 and half Tier 2, it would equate to an annual funding amount of nearly $900,000.

So even if a relatively small percentage of growers end up enrolling — it’s estimated there are 6,000 to 10,000 in Humboldt County alone — it is likely to be sufficient to fund the program.

Growers will be subject to financial penalties if they fail to enroll or fail to adhere to the new requirements. “We can levy fines of up to $10,000 a day or $500 per gallon of discharge,” McIntee said, adding that the grows doing the most damage will receive attention first.

“We will prioritize based on the threat to water quality,” he explained.

When asked how the water board would find the bad actors in the first place, he said one way would be by receiving complaints. Another method would be through aerial imagery, which would reveal the watersheds where grows are concentrated — and where water board staff could get the most bang for its buck in terms of conducting field inspections.

With only four staff members currently assigned to the program, the ability to conduct such inspections is limited. But McIntee said that as funds for the program increase due to greater numbers of enrollees the situation will change.

“As momentum grows, our staff will grow and we [can better] go out after the people who are not doing the right thing.”

McIntee pointed out that getting compliant means more than simply paying enrollment fees. It also means spending money on fixes aimed at improving the quality of water discharges emanating from a property, such as repairing culverts, shoring up roads and installing water storage tanks.

It turns out there’s a legal driver that will be pushing water board staff to ensure that such work gets done.

“One of the charges of the Clean Water Act is that any action we as a government take, we can’t allow an unfair economic advantage [to be enjoyed by] those who are not compliant,” McIntee explained. “We can’t allow people to not comply and get away with it. It wouldn’t be economically just to those who are trying to comply.”

McIntee repeated his point a little later in the interview, this time in somewhat simpler terms.

“If Joe is paying money getting legal and Suzy isn’t and [thereby] benefitting, we need to take that into account. It’s not fair to Joe if Suzy is getting away with it.”