The water that flows through California’s public lands and state parks is the life blood of the forests’ ecosystems. But in the midst of a water shortage, the Investigative Unit has found some criminals are disrupting nature’s course and stealing massive amounts of water meant for public lands.
The Investigative Unit spoke with a rancher who noticed the water levels in his lake drop a dramatic six feet in just three weeks.
“It was just so odd,” he told the Investigative Unit.
The rancher soon discovered hundreds of feet of piping siphoning his water to a marijuana grow site illegally setup in a nearby state park. He asked for his identity to be concealed to protect his safety.
“It’s something you wouldn’t even imagine how they go through rocks, trees. They would divert using all these plumbing systems through all these canyons,” he said. “I am losing my water. We love the water here.”
According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Marijuana Enforcement Team (MET), in the last two years, illegal marijuana grows have stolen 1.2 billion gallons of water. That’s the equivalent of 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
“We are absolutely seeing more aggressive water-stealing by marijuana cultivators,” said Lieutenant John Nores, head of the Fish and Wildlife’s MET. “Water is getting much more limited with the drought.”
Just this year, wardens from Fish and Wildlife’s MET have uncovered 136 dams, reservoirs and elaborate piping systems set up by pot growers to steal water. One of those was the system near the rancher’s property, uncovered deep in Henry Coe State Park near Morgan Hill, about 35 miles southeast of San Jose. Raid video provided to the Investigative Unit by Fish and Wildlife shows wardens armed and with a K-9 unit approaching the illegal grow of 8,000 plants.
“You can see the chemicals,” a warden says in the video, pointing to a pipe gushing with water.
The team of park rangers and Fish and Wildlife wardens is trained in military tactics for these missions. In the last two years, they have made 436 arrests at trespass marijuana grows and seized 500,000 plants, all nourished with stolen water.
“We call it the black gold for our growers,” Lt. Nores said about the water. “As long as they have water source in our woods, they are kind of hidden and they can get water to their plants long enough to successfully harvest their plants.”
Nores hiked with the Investigative Unit to another busted marijuana grow in Shasta Trinity National Forest in Redding where law enforcement found 3,000 plants this past August.
Left behind was eight miles of irrigation piping that siphoned water from a nearby river.
“This water diversion was responsible–if this grow had not been found by the end of the year–for about 3.6 million gallons of water,” Nores said.
Fish and Wildlife provided video from another raid in Tulare County, near Bakersfield, where they found seven reservoirs diverting water from the river that provides water to the nearby Tule River American Indian Tribe.
“They’ve taken every single drop of out of this creek,” one of the wardens says in the video.
“The risk is, that everything that we’ve worked so hard to save, will unravel,” said Sam Hodder, director of Save the Redwoods.
The organization has fought for years to preserve public land. Hodder said a mature marijuana plant requires eight gallons of water a day and stealing this amount of water can be deadly to the environment.
“The whole system is getting hurt,” Hodder said. “When the streams and rivers are losing water, the habitat and the wildlife that depend on that water suffer.”
Lawmakers have begun to recognize the problem. Earlier this year, Congressman Jared Huffman, who represents California’s most northern district, proposed a bill called the PLANT Act – Protecting Lands Against Narcotics Trafficking Act – that would enhance penalties for trespass marijuana grows.
“Especially this year, the worst drought year California has ever seen, it’s more important than ever to crack down on water theft,” Congressman Huffman told the Investigative Unit. “I think setting stronger penalties is part of the solution.” he said.
The problem is especially relevant for Huffman’s district, where 60 percent of the marijuana in the country is produced.
The PLANT Act goes into effect this month. Huffman hopes it will deter these crimes and will in turn, protect the environment.
As for those affected by water loss, the rancher we spoke with near Henry Coe State Park had this advice: “Cross your fingers for a wet year.”