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Water Board working to reduce impacts of pot grows

Water regulators in the region are beginning to take a closer look at illegal cannabis cultivation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to better determine the impacts on water quality.

Certain marijuana grow sites on both private and public lands can be extremely harmful to wildlife and the environment, according to Cris Carrigan, director of the State Water Quality Control Board's Office of Enforcement in California.

Pot cultivation can cause erosion, stream habitat degradation, pollution and water source contaminations through the use of fertilizers and pesticides, he said, and unlawful water diversions created for the purpose of growing can significantly limit water availability to both animals and people.

"The impacts that we are seeing are severe, and for the most part unnecessary," Carrigan told the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board during a discussion Wednesday.

Because of these escalating concerns, the State Water Board has been developing a marijuana regulatory program for the purpose of mitigating the impacts of cannabis cultivation by focusing on enforcement and prevention.

Assisting in this movement is the Lahontan Water Board staff, who have begun tackling the issue in their own region by reaching out to several public landowners, such as the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

By working with those agencies, Lahontan plans to develop a process for cleaning up waste from any illegal pot cultivation areas after law enforcement shuts the sites down.

It also intends to identify illegal marijuana grows within its own region and assess any impacts they might be having on water quality, said Eric Taxer, of Lahontan's enforcement and special projects unit.

"These sites routinely desecrate our environment," he told the board. "They produce immense amounts of garbage in their campsites from their chemical use, their fuel use (and their) human waste."

A March 2014 survey of county sheriffs within Lahontan region counties, conducted so staff could get a better idea of the pot-farming situation, identified many outdoor cultivation areas in its jurisdiction.

One of the grow areas was located in Placer County, between Truckee and Tahoe City.

Nothing was specifically identified in El Dorado County, but problems there are "suspected," according to Lahontan documents. Water quality issues there "often result from indoor grows" or the dumping of waste on public lands.

Taxer said Lahontan's efforts are a start, but there's still more work to be done.

"It's going to take some time to go through this," he said, "but we are in the beginning stages of this process."