State Finds Pot Grow Site Diverting Water From Endangered Salmon Stream

Some of the plants seized in the raid. Note the cleared ground waiting to shed silt into the salmon stream. | Photo: CDFW

A creek containing the state's southernmost run of the federally endangered coho salmon has been diverted for an illegal pot grow, reports the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which raided the grow site along with the Santa Cruz and Santa Clara county sheriffs' departments.

The grow site, on the banks of San Vicente Creek near Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz County, may have been taking as much as 1,400 gallons of water a day from San Vicente Creek. The couple of miles of San Vicente's lower reaches, from the Mill Creek Dam to the creek's outflow at the coastal community of Davenport, host a small population of the endangered Central Coast coho salmon, along with a larger population of steelhead.

Officers raiding the grow site, which had been installed on private property without the landowners' permission, confiscated 180 mature plants and arrested two men. They also found and removed fertilizer, hashish, and a number of discarded butane containers. Butane is used in extracting hash oil from raw cannabis, indicating that the site had been used for processing in addition to growing the plants.

The two suspects were arrested on charges that included streambed alteration and illegal disposal of hazardous materials on private property.

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"These marijuana cultivation sites are not only illegal but the trash left behind causes tremendous damage to the environment," said CDFW Assistant Chief Brian Naslund. "Our officers are working hard around the state to find and remove these cultivation sites, keep harmful chemicals from entering state waters and ensure public safety."

In addition to diverting creek water from San Vicente Creek and potentially leaking hazardous material into the water, the growers apparently cleared vegetation from around their plants, guaranteeing that the next bit of rain will wash silt into the creek. Silt is a major problem for salmon, who need clean, cold water and exposed gravel beds for their living and breeding habitat.

Coho salmon, Oncorhynchus kisutch, are in deep trouble in their historic range south of San Francisco. Once found as far south as Pajaro Creek near Watsonville, the endangered fish have been forced out of one stream after another by development, streambed engineering, pollution, and logging. As a result, the fish south of San Francisco were listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2005.

Until the fisheries wing of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started reintroducing coho into San Vicente Creek in 2012, the southernmost remaining coho run in California had lived in Scott and Waddell creeks a few miles north in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The reintroduction of coho into San Vicente is going reasonably well but the run isn't yet self-sustaining, and drawing down the creek while dumping fertilizers and silt into it won't help.

"Illegal marijuana growers steal substantial amounts of water, exacerbating our severe drought conditions," said CDFW's Naslund. "Marijuana plants use six to eight gallons of water per plant, per day, and are a direct hazard to wildlife that eats the plants."

The grow was reported to CDFW via its wildlife violations tip line at 1-888-DFG-CALTIP. The agency encourages Californians who see illegal pollutiing and wildlife poaching to call the tip line. Calls can be made anonymously.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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