I was standing in the middle of a bright, green marijuana farm, a patch worth about $19 million, when I learned pot farmers might be ripping off Red Skelton. Not the famous comedian himself, because Red died a while ago, but his widow. She owns a nearby ranch. Pot farmers need water, I was told, a lot of water.
We were in an illegal marijuana "grove" near Hemet, in a wilderness area known for illegal marijuana farms. Law enforcement busted several near here last year. Today they had found four more. We had flown in with CAMP - The Campaign Against Marijuana Planting - the largest law enforcement task force in the United States.
Mark Reynolds, a Riverside County Sheriff's Investigator, came up to us in the grove and said he was going to try to find the water source. Marijuana needs up to a gallon per day per plant in hot, dry climates. Almost all of it is stolen from natural springs, water mains, fire lines, private homes or ranches.
Secret, Buried Lines
When a marijuana farmer wants to start a farm, he first looks for water.
According to Reynolds, "Around mid-November they'll come out and start looking. The theory behind that is if there is water flowing in late November there is going to be water throughout the year."
Then the growers will assemble their team, usually illegal immigrants from Mexico, brought in to prepare the land. Often the workers are under duress, their families threatened or frightened back in Mexico.
"We've actually arrested people that have told us straight up that they were brought up from (Mexico) specifically to tend marijuana, and we hear...how they were forced to come up, their families are being threatened and pressured," says Chris Jackson, the Regional Commander of CAMP.
The growers buy miles of rubber hose, tubing and drip lines from big box stores like Home Depot. They carry it into the grow sites, often miles off the faintest trail, deep in the wilderness. They tap into a water source and then begin siphoning the water, sucking it through the hose with their mouths as they bury the line. They can run the line for miles, up over hills and down into canyons, burying it the entire way.
"Its amazing how resourceful they are and how good they are at tapping into springs and then building reservoirs," says Jackson.
"They do it all without pumps, and get garden hose strength from two miles away."
Reynolds follows the rubber hose, pulling on it with his hands, ripping it out of dense scrub. It is rough going. After an hour, he follows it into a large bush immediately adjacent to the Skelton Ranch.
He finds the pot farmers have installed different plumbing here, changing from rubber hose to a buried PVC pipe.
The pipe leads 30 yards onto the Skelton Ranch and taps directly into the ranch's well.
A Poisoned Well
"They did a sloppy job. You can see there's no back valve," says Reynolds as he digs down, exposing where the pot farmers cut in the ranch's water line.
The absence of a back valve means the pot farmer's pesticides and chemicals may have backwashed downhill through the lines and poisoned the drinking water in the well. All of which leads the investigator to believe the ranch owner knew nothing of the pot farmer's theft of her water.
Small environmental disasters are increasingly common on marijuana farms. The growers use Mexican pesticides, illegal in the United States. The pesticides pollute ground water and kill wildlife.
Dave Sickels, an officer with California Department of Fish and Game, says, "We find dead rats, mice, and small animals all over the marijuana farms. They've been poisoned, and of course other animals have then eaten them, too."
And all the toxins go into the water table, along with fecal matter left by the growers. The clean-up comes out of taxpayers' pockets. It costs at least $10 thousand per acre to clean up and haul out the toxic chemicals, rubber hose, and trash - over $100 million this season alone.
Reynolds finds the ranch caretaker, who explains Skelton's widow has been gone for five weeks. But, he has seen men in the bushes from which we just came. He tells us he saw men with bicycles early in the year and later, men with guns. He thought they might be hunters.
No Harvest, No Pay
Reynolds explains usually several farmers will sit with the plants, living in rough camps for up to six months, fertilizing and watering the marijuana. At harvest time, they hire more workers, usually for about $200 a day.
"We've seen up to six to ten to twelve subjects up there during harvest time. They clip the plants. They cut the plants. They trim them. They'll hang and dry them," says Reynolds.
The farmers usually get paid only when the crop is sold, meaning today's farmers are out of luck. In fact, on this day the CAMP team eradicates 4 marijuana farms, worth an estimated $60 million.
CAMP's Chris Jackson says, "Not only are they out a paycheck, but this comes out of...the street dealer's pocket...out of the middle man, and it goes way up to the drug cartels down in Mexico. So all the violence and interactions that you see with the cartels down there, this is taking money straight out of their pockets."