While the legality of California’s medical marijuana dispensaries is being debated in courtrooms, a UC Cooperative Extension forestry and wildlands ecology advisor says there are a number of issues related to the unregulated land-use practices of illicit cannabis growing that have not been addressed.
Greg Giusti. “And you can’t talk to anybody today on the North Coast without the topic of cannabis growing and cannabis impacts on land coming up.”
In Lake and Mendocino counties, Giusti performs research and shares information with public agencies and private landowners in relation to forest management and freshwater ecology on behalf of UC Cooperative Extension. Marijuana farming is not a topic that Giusti ever intended to address.
Effects on natural resources
Most of the data available about illicit cannabis grows is based on drug enforcement actions, specifically how many sites were busted and how many plants or pounds of plant material were seized. Giusti has gathered photographs and anecdotal evidence of the effects on natural resources of commercial-scale marijuana grows operated illicitly on public and private lands.
Some of the effects he has documented:
- illegal water controls (including dams, stream diversion and water storage)
- water pollution from petroleum, pesticide and fertilizer products
- pesticides applied without permits
- pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals left behind
- indiscriminate fish and wildlife killing (including poisoning, trapping and poaching for food)
- human trash and waste left after camping
“It’s not this green industry that people talk about,” Giusti says. “They’re diverting water, they’re polluting streams, and there’s a portion who are poaching. We’re also seeing all of the negative effects of unregulated road building, unregulated construction and unregulated human inhabitation for months and months out in the woods.”
Giusti explained that some cannabis growers divert water from streams to store in large water bladders, prematurely lowering stream levels during critical times in the year.
“It's illegal to do, but at the same time you can drive up and down Highway 101 and easily buy these huge bladders,” he said.
He notes that local businesses are selling compost by the ton, rodenticide by the pallet, thousands of pairs of clippers and turkey bags in lots of 100.
“Mainstream businesses are supporting this underground industry,” Giusti said. “You don’t have to be growing cannabis to be making money off of it.”
In 2010, Giusti organized two community workshops in Lake County to address the impacts of illicit cannabis land-use on forest resources, for a combined attendance of nearly 400 community members. Giusti has shared his results with the board of supervisors for Lake and Mendocino counties, local news media, local foresters and the staff of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.
“My intention was to initiate a communitywide discussion to ask, ‘Is this what you want to happen to your forests?’” Giusti said. “Up until now it's been talked about in hushed tones, and I wanted to initiate a dialogue out loud. Everybody has been whispering about it.”
The presentation he developed for those meetings continues to generate discussion. Most recently, he has presented to the North Coast Water Quality Control Board staff and other agencies. He has shared photos collected for his presentation with Congressman Mike Thompson’s office as well.
“With the water quality control board, I had the opportunity to engage people whose job it is to protect the beneficial uses of water — and hopefully stimulate an internal dialogue so that they can continue the discussion after I leave their office,” he said. “There are other resource agencies that need to be involved, and county planning departments too. This is an unregulated land-use practice.”
This month, the Lake County Record-Bee ran an article by reporter Linda Williams with the headline “Thirsty marijuana grows suck Eel River dry,” which included some information presented at Giusti’s meetings.
“My efforts seem to be improving people's awareness,” he says. “The very thing I wanted to accomplish — creating broader dialogues — is happening.”
Weeds, weeds, weeds! Have you noticed? This has been a banner year for weeds. Puncturevine where I’ve never seen it before. Garden soil covered with common purslane (at least it’s good in salads). And solid stands of yellow starthistle everywhere!
What can be done? First of all, identify your weeds. Different weeds require different treatments. Is it an annual or perennial? Does it propagate by wind-blown seeds or by runners? The University of California Integrated Pest Management website, has weed-identification guides that are fun and easy to use. The website also offers treatment guidelines.
In the California foothills, yellow starthistle (YST) is perhaps the most common weed of concern. It impacts much of our open space - agricultural and rangeland - and intrudes into our neighborhood landscapes. Yellow starthistle currently infests more than 15 million acres of land in California. Not only does it prevent recreational use, like walking or hiking, but it chokes out native grasses and wildflowers. It is also poisonous to horses, causing a neurological disorder called "chewing disease” which can be fatal once symptoms develop.
That said, yellow starthistle can be hand-pulled at any time in its lifespan. In its present dry and spiny stage, pulling the weeds can inflict pain, so be sure to wear gloves. Double-bag the plants and burn them later in the fall.
There is a fairly new herbicide (2009) on the market from Monterey Chemical called Star Thistle Killer.
Local pest control companies are also available to provide a one-time herbicide application for yellow starthistle. For more information, go to the Central Sierra Cooperative Extension website or call the Yellow Starthistle Leading Edge Project in the UC Cooperative Extension office at (530) 621-5533 or (209) 533-6993.
Information adapted from the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program and from “Yellow Starthistle: Brief Homeowner Information Sheet” by John E. Otto, Amador County Master Gardener.
Also see the following video on yellow starthistle control.
California’s vast dry rangelands are dotted with water troughs ideal for quenching cattle’s thirst. But in most cases, the troughs’ designs are a torment to wildlife drawn for a drink.
Monterey County rancher George Work observed how traditional water troughs frustrated the wildlife on his family’s 12,000-acre cattle ranch. Small birds couldn’t reach water two or three inches below the top edge. Coyotes, bobcats and cottontails weren’t tall enough to reach over the rim. Work set to making a water trough that would meet the needs of all animals on the range – from cattle, hunting dogs and horses to deer and rabbits.
While raising cattle remains the primary function of the Work Ranch, in order to generate more income from the scenic open space the ranch opens its doors to hunting wild boar, quail and Tule elk. The visitors enjoy seeing a diversity of wildlife.
“One-third of our business comes from wildlife,” Work said.
In 1998, Work drew from decades of first-hand experience to design a better water trough. With a grant from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, he constructed a prototype. The concrete trough is sunk into the ground under an elderberry tree. Work modified a float like those used in toilet tanks to keep the water within centimeters of the rim.
That first man-made watering hole was an improvement for many species, but it also revealed some problems. Birds needed an escape ramp to climb out of the water should they fall in while drinking; the ramp should be shallow enough to allow the birds to bathe. Larger animals had to be kept from using the trough for a cooling dip. Work found that sloping the sides to a sharp V at the bottom of the trough made it unappealing for a soak.
Years of experimentation and innovation resulted in the development of pre-manufactured concrete water troughs, which are now commercially available. The next challenge is selling the idea to ranchers.
Enter UC Cooperative Extension. On an unrelated visit to the Work Ranch, UC Berkeley wildlife biologist Reg Barrett was impressed by Work’s invention and encouraged UC Cooperative Extension rangeland advisor Royce Larsen and NRCS rangeland conservationist Karl Striby to help spread the word.
Larsen and Stirby are now completing the first step, adding the ground-level water trough specifications to NRCS's published Technical Notes. The publication will provide ranchers and other land owners with the information they need to install the wildlife-friendly troughs.
“If you’re thinking of installing a basic, traditional trough for cattle, it may or may not be the best idea,” Larsen said. “But you’re thinking about supporting both cattle and wildlife, it’s great.”
In the video below, rancher George Work shows the ground-level water trough prototype and the second-generation, pre-manufactured version.
Ecosystem services is a new term I've been hearing. Naturally I wondered, what are these services and is the ecosystem serving me? Ecosystem services are benefits we receive from the environment, such as clean water, open space, beautiful scenery, food production, wildlife habitat and diversity of plants and animals.
Not surprisingly, ecosystem services appeal to a broad audience. However, in the past, many people advocated for a single favored service and would fight with those who were partial to a different service. Now there is a strong trend toward partnerships.
“There’s been sea change on the topic of livestock management and rangeland ecosystem services,” said Ken Tate, UC Cooperative Extension watershed specialist based at UC Davis.
In a scenario 20 years ago, many ranchers would have focused solely on livestock production and ranch profit, while some environmental groups would have voiced concerns solely about wildlife habitat, and a government regulatory agency may have considered water quality the most important service. All parties have begun to recognize the connections among these important services and the need to work together to enhance all of them.
“If a ranch is not economically viable, then there is risk that land could become a shopping mall or some other development,” Tate explained. “A working ranch provides more ecosystem services than developments such as malls or suburban sprawl.”
A UC study published in the current issue of California Agriculture journal found that rangeland owners valued their land for its natural amenities as well as a financial investment.
Recently more than 120 people representing new and long-time ranchers, conservation groups, federal and state natural resources agencies, UC scientists and others gathered for the “Managing Rangeland for Ecosystem Services Workshop and Field Day” to discuss their common goals.
“Interest in this event reflects the growing interest in ecosystem services in a growing number of people,” said Tate, who organized the Oct. 18 event at UC’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, located 60 miles northeast of Sacramento. “Some people drove four or five hours to attend.”
At the workshop, Tate introduced the Prescribed Grazing for Ecosystem Service Project.
Despite their different backgrounds and ecosystem service priorities, there was no adversarial discussion among the attendees, observed participant Morgan Doran, UC Cooperative Extension livestock & natural resources advisor for Solano County.
“Everyone seemed to be in agreement that livestock are a useful tool in sustaining a healthy rangeland ecosystem,” Doran said. “And all seemed to acknowledge a need to better understand the balance of provisioning goods and services from rangeland systems.”
“We used to talk about one service at a time,” Tate said. “Now we talk about tradeoffs and synergies involved in managing for many services simultaneously. Optimizing water quality might take away from profitability. Talking about tradeoffs used to be confrontational. Now if we can understand the costs of these tradeoffs, there may be an individual or organization willing to pay for that difference. Basically, purchasing ecosystem services.”
Tate credits the workshop cosponsor California Rangeland Conservation Coalition for fostering the collaborative attitude. UC is among the more than 100 agricultural organizations, environmental interest groups, and state and federal agencies that have signed the California Rangeland Resolution, which recognizes that rangelands and the diversity of species they support largely exist due to grazing and other stewardship practices of the ranchers who own and manage the land.
“New people have come to the table who might not have gotten involved in a negative process,” Tate said. “The coalition is a positive approach to the conservation of rangelands, that makes it attractive to people. They are working together to achieve common goals.”
Tate is excited about Cooperative Extension’s role of trying to identify the information needs and conducting the research to supply this information.
Leslie Roche, a UC Davis postdoctoral researcher and presenter, remarked on the interest and enthusiasm in collaborative research and management demonstrated among the diverse group of attendees.
“Everyone is genuinely motivated to work together in bridging the gap between research and management communities on this topic, and that is really exciting," Roche said.
A list of speakers and their presentations for the workshop and field day are posted on the California Rangeland Watershed Laboratory website.
Although the term ecosystem service was unfamiliar to me, it’s not new. In 2000, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. The objective of the project was, “to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and the scientific basis for action needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems and their contribution to human well-being.”
UC scientists presented recent additions to the growing body of research on conservation tillage in California at the second annual Twilight Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems field day last month, demonstrating progress in agricultural systems that will help farmers cut production costs, reduce soil disturbance and save water.
UC scientists and their partner farmers are conducting research that addresses the current needs of the San Joaquin Valley agricultural industry and research that is looking to the future by anticipating changes that may need to be negotiated in coming decades.
During the field day at UC's West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points, Calif., participants visited two primary research areas. The first is the longest-standing conservation ag system study in California, where a cotton/tomato rotation has been farmed for 12 years running. The plots include standard tillage with and without cover crops and conservation tillage with and without cover crops.
“This might be the most-visited research field in California,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist and chair of the CT workgroup. “Many students and scientists have conducted research here.”
For example, scientists have been able to quantify significant improvements in soil quality with the use of cover crops and conservation tillage. UC Davis soil biochemist Will Horwath reported that conservation tillage combined with an off-season cover crop has increased the soil carbon content close to five tons per hectare.
“Is that significant?” Horwath asks. “Yes. In 10 years, we have almost doubled the soil carbon content.”
Because of the valley’s dry, hot climate, the native soils are typically very low in carbon, which is a characteristic of low soil quality. Carbon in the soil acts as a glue, helping reduce wind erosion.
At the second research field, conservation tillage research is being combined with overhead and subsurface drip irrigation. Coupling overhead irrigation with conservation tillage is common in other regions of the U.S., but is just beginning to get attention in California.
“There are more than 17,000 center pivots in the state of Nebraska, and it is estimated that there are somewhere between 300 and 500 pivots currently in use in California, the No. 1 ag state in the nation,” Mitchell said. “This situation is changing rapidly.”
Overhead irrigation is efficient, automated, allows for diverse cropping and, with soil residues from conservation tillage, permits uniform infiltration.
Four users of overhead irrigation shared their experiences with the irrigation system at the field day. West side farmer John Deiner said mechanized irrigation has significantly reduced labor input in his agronomic crops while boosting crop yields.
“Our corn grew two to three feet taller under the pivot,” he said.
Will Taylor of King City grows potatoes for In and Out Burger under center pivots. He said his yields are 20 percent higher when using the overhead irrigation system.
“Once you overcome challenges,” Taylor said, “they’re awesome.”
He demonstrated their ease of use by bringing along his 9-year-old son Liam, whom he said can already manage the machine.
Darryl Cordova of Denair uses overhead irrigation in a hilly area on the east side of the valley.
“What used to take three guys six hours of moving pipe is now done with a push of a button on my cell phone,” Cordova said.
Scott Schmidt, who farms across the street from the West Side Research and Extension Center, said he has learned how to successfully use overhead irrigation and conservation tillage from the “school of hard knocks.”
“Most of the problems have been self-inflicted wounds,” Schmidt said. But now, he calls the system “flawless.” “We have seven pivots that I operate remotely from my phone.”