Vanda Felbab-Brown discusses the widely unacknowledged negative environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation, particularly as it relates to its large use and depletion of water, citing cases in California and Colorado, and reflecting on what these cases might mean for Mexico. This piece was originally published by La Reforma's Mexico Today.
The government of Mexico is on the verge of legalizing cannabis for industrial, medical, and recreational purposes, legislation that would make Mexico only the third country to legalize all aspects of cannabis production and all types of the plant’s use. In a recent piece, I explored whether the legalization was likely to deliver the promised advancement in civil liberties in Mexico, reduce the size of its prison population, reduce abuse by its military and police forces and facilitate law enforcement focus on serious crimes, also whether it would generate high tax revenues for the government and legal incomes and social mobility for farmers of illicit crops. Here, I focus on the widely unacknowledged negative environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation, such as the massive use and depletion of water. In my column in two weeks, I will explore the likelihood that legalization will eliminate the black market and reduce violent crime and deprive violent criminal groups of money.
Cannabis is a very water-intensive plant, and its legal and illegal cultivation on a large scale easily results in water depletion. From environmental protection and public policy perspectives, large-scale illegal cultivation of any crop, especially water thirsty crops like marijuana, often has correlative bad environmental impacts. Since illegal cultivators don’t pay for water use, they tend to deplete water at even more wasteful rates with little regard for sustainability. The problem in Mexico is that much of the country’s legal agricultural businesses equally steal water for the production of other legal crops. In a country where both water scarcity and water theft are pervasive, the odds are very high that many large cannabis businesses as well as small farmers who will eventually receive cannabis cultivation licenses will behave just as perniciously.
Water theft in California is alleged to be frequently associated with legal and illegal cultivation of cannabis. It equally pervades legal and illegal cannabis cultivation in Oregon and Colorado.
To cultivate a single cannabis plant to harvest indoors requires about 450 gallons (1,710 liters), and about twice that much outdoors — several times greater than the daily water consumption of an individual in the U.S. If similar water use is maintained in Mexico’s dry hot lands, that number may be even higher. Already Mexico along with the United States has a very high water footprint per person: In the United States, the footprint is 2,842 cubic meters per capita per year, of which agriculture consumes 85 percent. In Mexico, it is 1,978 cubic meters per capita per year, with agriculture taking up 92 percent. In both countries, these numbers are much higher than the global average.
To avoid water costs, legal and illegal cultivators of cannabis in the United States thus often seek to use water from sources other than metered taps. In California’s Siskiyou County alone, illegal marijuana cultivators were estimated to expend about 1.5 to 2 million gallons (5.7 to 7.6 million liters) of unpaid water a day in 2014.
In the Emerald Triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties, ecologically-important water streams, on which threatened steelhead and salmon depend, were diverted to supply the cultivation of marijuana, with some 24 streams going dry due to the marijuana-cultivation-driven diversion and drought.
But the 2016 legalization of recreational cannabis in California did not radically reduce water theft.
First, only some licensed cultivators of cannabis complied with water regulations. Many continued to use water without paying for it or siphoned it illegally. Many illegal cannabis cultivators did not apply for legal cultivation permits. Some cultivators are deterred because a legal permit would require them to pay taxes, comply with costly regulations (such as that all indoor cultivation has to use 100 percent renewable energy), and obtain water permits. Getting cannabis cultivation consistent with California’s code is thus a costly and complex proposition involving getting permits from California’s waterboard, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the county. Many cultivators find it cheap and easier to fly under the radar.
Like all agricultural producers, cannabis cultivators in California also massively overuse and deplete inadequately regulated groundwater. In many ways, the cannabis industry behaves as poorly toward California’s water as do other types of agricultural production in the state.
Second, large-scale illegal cultivation of cannabis persists in California five years after legalization and despite intensive law enforcement eradication of the illegal grows. The scale of the problem is staggering: Even at the end of 2020, illegal cannabis grows sucked up between 11.4 million and 36.3 million liters of water daily! The widespread illegal cultivation contributes to water depletion and conflict over water and has other bad environmental consequences. Illegal cultivators pipe water from threatened wetlands and rivers, endangering entire ecosystems, and use dangerous pesticides and chemicals. Illegal cultivation in national and state forests also undermines local biodiversity, including for highly vulnerable species already threatened by habitat destruction and pushed into ever smaller corners of land.
The legality-illegality issues surrounding cannabis cultivation and water use can be complex. For example, in the severe-drought-afflicted California Siskiyou County, local ranchers were legally selling their water (often pumped ground water) to unknown users, widely believed to be growers of vast illegal cannabis grows. In a place that has already depleted much of its surface water, the water level of the entire aquifer has receded substantially, so much so that household showers and water taps have gone dry. Public protests against such water sales resulted in a resolution to make it a public nuisance to pump water solely to irrigate illegal cannabis grows. Yet the ordinance lacks teeth: it does not allow government employees to enter private property and turn off water. Determining pumping “solely” for illegal cannabis grows is close to impossible. Thus, the undesirable water sales for likely illegal pot have persisted even after the ordinance was passed. And fundamentally and critically, California lacks comprehensive groundwater monitoring and regulation. Such regulation is also desperately lacking in Mexico, where even surface water regulations is mostly ignored.
Other disputes over water rights between marijuana growers and other state residents and farmers have flared up in other ways too: The influx of growers from Eastern U.S. states and the move of urban California residents into rural areas has caused many residents to believe that marijuana growers do not understand the laws of prior appropriation and senior rights, and assume that if a stream goes through their property, they can draw water from it, and hence steal water. Many Californians thus allege water theft.
Clearly, these practices are immensely undesirable from a water conservation and broader environmental conservation perspective. But whether they constitute water theft — i.e., a violation of existing laws and ordinances, depends on local surface water regulations — an enormously complex field in California — combining riparian laws and appropriation laws. Sometimes taking water from rivers and even public hydrants does constitute a violation, other times it does not. If marijuana growers are taking water from rivers on public lands to which no one has been accorded a prior water right, they are not engaging in theft. If they are siphoning off water from someone who has a water right in a specific area, they engage in theft.
Ascertaining whether water use complies with regulations thus often requires “forensic hydrology,” such as wading in cold water streams for weeks to measure flows, testing multiple hypotheses for why creeks are drying, and trolling remote places for identification of potential illegal hookups. These highly labor-intensive undertakings often vastly surpass the personnel resources of local water boards and limit the effectiveness of public regulation.
Some clear violations of regulation, i.e., water theft, occur. The Klamath County Sheriff’s office, for example, has identified cases of cannabis growers directly diverting water from water canals, stealing from neighbor’s irrigators, filling up portable tanks from rivers in violation of regulations, purchasing water illegally sold from community wells, and placing illegal water pipes.
Legal and sustainable water use for cannabis cultivation is possible: Using recycled water systems and metering water delivery to each plant can reduce water use from six gallons of water a day to under two gallons a day. However, installing a recycled water system (legally mandated in some counties, such as Sonoma County) can cost $50,000, a hefty fee for a small cultivator.
In many of Mexico’s prime agricultural areas, such as the state of Guanajuato, the unpaid overuse of water by agricultural businesses and small farmers alike has produced such water scarcity that deep underground water polluted with arsenic and fluoride is now regularly used by the poor for drinking, and is likely also used by businesses for agriculture. Yet it is the agricultural farms that are the big users; they consume some 80-90 percent of all water in the region and do not pay for it. The odds are poor that cannabis cultivators in Mexico will behave any better with legal cannabis.
Cannabis cultivation can also have a large carbon footprint. In Colorado, for example, researchers from Colorado State University found that electricity production and natural gas consumption of indoor cannabis cultivation (centering on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), supplies of carbon dioxide for accelerated plant growth, and high-intensity growth lights have pushed the crop’s carbon footprint sky-high. In Colorado, the carbon emissions from indoor cannabis cultivation are a staggering 30 percent higher than coal mining emissions! How does your joint sit with your environmental consciousness?
To a considerable extent, the huge emissions are a function of the fact that cannabis must be grown close to retail stores in Colorado, privileging indoor cultivation. Utility companies compound the problem by giving rebates to indoor farms, putting outdoor growers at a competitive disadvantage. Mexico, where much of the forthcoming cannabis cultivation will presumably take place outdoors, is likely to have a much smaller carbon footprint. But its water footprint may be higher than in the United States, with even a higher percentage supplied out of stolen water.
Thus, before you light up your Mexico joint a year or so down the road, you should consider what kind of environmental impact you’re having and demand only pot with water-smart and environmentally-benign certification. Yet the poor security and rule of law in Mexico will undermine the credibility of most such environmentally-sustainable certification. As in many other aspects of the legal cannabis industry, large-scale foreign growers will be far better positioned to acquire such certification than small-scale indigenous or poor farmers who will neither be able to afford such certification, nor likely comply with any environmentally-sensitive growth methods. And many marginalized farmers are likely to operate in territories controlled by criminal groups where certifiers may not dare venture.