In drought-hit California, marijuana growers are feeling the heat, accused of using too much water for their thirsty plants and of polluting streams and rivers with their pesticides and fertilizers.
State officials say a pot plant sucks up an average of 6 gallons of water per day, worsening a shortage caused by one of the biggest droughts on record. They say the situation is particularly acute along California's North Coast, where the growing pressure to irrigate pot threatens salmon and other fish.
"This industry — and it is an industry — is completely unregulated," said Scott Bauer, a fisheries biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. "What I just hope is that the watersheds don't go up in smoke before we get things regulated and protect our fish and wildlife."
Bauer said it was common to see marijuana growers driving pickups with water tanks.
California is the most popular state for pot producers to grow crops in U.S. forests, accounting for 86 percent of the nearly 1 million plants federal officials seized in 2012. At raided sites, authorities have found widespread damage, including miles of irrigation lines, propane tanks, and rat poison and other toxic chemicals that end up in streams.
California Democratic Rep. John Garamendi said the forest growers were "operating without any environmental awareness."
"They're using the water illegally. They're using the land illegally. They're growing an illegal product," Garamendi said.
Medical growers who tend their crops on private property object to getting lumped in with the illegal growers who are trespassing on federal lands. "It's really easy to point fingers at a very large cash crop that's completely unregulated,'' said Kristin Nevedal of Garberville, Calif., the founding chairwoman of the Emerald Growers Association.
Nevedal and other pot backers said the ultimate solution was for Congress to fully legalize the drug, which she said would eliminate the need for growers to hide in the wilderness and truck in their water.