We are deep into 2014 and the drought ain’t about to quit. Already, we’ve had some barn-burners this summer — you can fry a bass on the side of Ukiah most days. Reservoirs are low, creeks are dry. The South Fork Eel is looking thin and sickly, like a piece of dark dental floss with big bits of yellow algae all caught up in it.
Most of us use water, lots of water, to flush our toilets, to water our landscapes, to wash our dishes and to water our pets; we use water to shower, to brush our teeth, to bathe our concrete, to fill our pools, to fill our bongs and rigs, to wash our clothes, to make our ice cubes; we use water to drink, to make our coffee and to brew our beer.
Water from these parts is diverted to points south for agriculture, and it’s diverted in order to lubricate urban sprawls. This is nothing unusual: Water is piped and diverted all over this massive state. Californians have lots of infrastructure and a history of loosey goosey water use.
But the water supply in the American West is on shaky ground — the drought has no end in sight. Our water systems are strained and poorly managed. The supplies are polluted and abused. And with climate change and the prospect of bigger and more complicated water diversion projects in the mix… The tension just builds and builds.
On the North Coast, the agricultural scene isn’t as gigantaur as it is in the Central Valley or other parts of SoCal; the population isn’t so huge. Yes, the local crops of grape vines and cannabis plants require water. Local residents require it too. The rivers seem to do better with water. There is demand here. But with the drought and these regional needs, plus the fact that part of the local supply is diverted elsewhere, well… Things are officially getting tight, as one would expect.
On June 30, there was a curtailment notice issued by the State Water Board to “those with post-1914 water rights diverting water in the North Fork Eel River, the Mainstem Eel River and the Van Duzen Tributary.” The notice says that “the State Water Board has determined that the existing water supply in the North Fork Eel River, Main Stem Eel River, and the Van Duzen tributary is insufficient to meet the needs of senior water rights holders.” Those found to be diverting water beyond what is legally available may be subject to fines of $1,000 per day of violation and $2,500 for each acre-foot diverted or used in excess of a valid water right. Violations of State Water Board-issued Cease and Desist Orders against unauthorized diversions can result in fines of $10,000 per day.
This notice went to 129 junior water rights holders, people that actually have water rights. Maybe the South Fork Eel was excluded from this notice because so few people have actually gone through the process of claiming water rights in this watershed?
The city of Rio Dell relies exclusively on the Eel for its water supply; it has junior water rights. Rio Dell did receive a curtailment notice, and now the city is enforcing pretty serious water restrictions. City officials want people to keep water usage to no more than 50 gallons per person per day in addition to other water-saving measures. Listen to this report for details on the city’s declared “State 3” water emergency, or you can read about it here on the city website.
Scotia and Fortuna received curtailment notices too, yet there’s no dramatic rationing or restrictions to speak of yet. Here is July 10 Times-Standard coverage of what’s going down in our area. The story features commentary from a local rancher that received a curtailment notice. The rancher is not stoked.
Back in May, about 650 curtailment notices were issued in the Russian River watershed. People in that region, farmers, are not stoked either.
The state just adopted emergency regulations in order to beef up enforcement because lots of people aren’t complying with these curtailment notices. The State Water Board is stepping up its game. This July 2nd Press Democrat coverage on the curtailment notices that says that “70 percent of the 7,910 curtailment orders already issued statewide in the past two months have been ignored.” So the state is wielding a weaponry of fines to get diverters in line.
Some local municipalities have been cracking down on water usage on their own accord, like the Redwood Valley County Water District in Mendo. They shut off the main water supply to 200 farmers back in April. Grape growers are impacted.
There is the possibility of shortages in the Clearlake area. It’s not so much about the volume of available water in this case; rather, it’s the extreme algae blooms in parts of the lake that are messing with the Konocti County Water District’s treatment system. This water district is also facing a higher than usual water demand; the manager of the district cites the bounty of marijuana gardens as a factor.
Yes, yes. Marijuana gardens. We see so many pics from rural pot grow busts that feature unsavory practices — illegal water diversions, improperly engineered ponds, trash, fertilizers and pesticides/rodenticides. The eyes of law enforcement supply pictures and evidence of the grow-tons-of-weed-and-fuck-the-land mindset.
But it is illogical to only blame pot growers for these serious water shortages and for ecological devastation — there’s a long history of bad eco-juju when it comes to people doing what they have to do to make money. Ray Raphael’s book, Two Peoples, One Place: Humboldt History, Volume 1, has abundant historical accounts of land-rape-for-profit. Between the mining and the logging, the precedent for land abuse was set well before the tsunami wave of cannabis farming washed ashore, long before dope growers became scapegoats.
There certainly are cannabis farmers who trash the land they grow on, who therefore embody heartless imperialism to a T. But there are conscious cannabis farmers out there too, those with sound water practices and ideas for a sustainable cannabis-farming-friendly future. They just don’t get as much press. Listen to Mendocino cannabis farmer Casey O’Neil’s spoken word piece, which he put together for the KMUD Cannabis-themed pledge drive. He’s all about doing it right and he shares his palatable vision against a backdrop of groovy music. Kudos.
The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District is one district that is doing alright with its water supply. In fact, it has an “excess” of water that it needs to reallocate. The pulp mills that used to buy large volumes of water from the Mad River are no longer operational. Now that water has to go somewhere else, to some customers, or the district will lose its right. Kym Kemp’s coverage from February has all the deets about how the HBMWD is talking about building a pipeline to send the water elsewhere, like maybe even out of the county.
Should that water be allocated to cannabis farmers? I know at least one local industry insider that thinks so. He thinks cannabis farmers “deserve” this “excess” water in the Mad River. What do you think? With dry times probably here to stay, how do you think modern Californians can resolve this water crisis?