After Riverside County deputies raided an unlicensed cannabis farm in the small, unincorporated community of Aguanga, they found nearly 3,000 plants growing scattered between the brush.

The tip that led Sgt. Tyson Voss and his team to that illicit farm last month came from a source you might not expect: the Cannabis Enforcement Unit of the California State Water Resources Control Board.

The state water agency created a pilot cannabis team four years ago to investigate marijuana growers in Northern California who divert or pollute waterways in their effort to profit via cannabis. Last year, the enforcement effort expanded into Southern California, with increased staffing in Santa Ana that’s part of a broader push to minimize the damage that cannabis cultivation can wreak on water quality and water supply.

The water agency’s cannabis-enforcement mission lines up well with local law enforcement and district attorneys. Environmental damage remains one of several crimes that can make marijuana cultivation a felony under the state’s new, more permissive cannabis laws.

Since the Water Board’s marijuana enforcement team launched in Southern California in 2017, Yvonne West, director of the Office of Enforcement for the State Water Resources Control Board, said staff has helped inspect sites and file reports for roughly 20 ongoing criminal cases against cannabis farmers.

Farms can harm waterways

For decades, unregulated marijuana farms have harmed California waterways.

Banned pesticides often wind up in nearby surface streams, West said. Water is sometimes diverted from a legitimate source to irrigate a bad actor’s farm. Chemicals from fertilizers and fuel from generators leaches from cannabis grows into nearby water supplies. Raw sewage — created when back-country farm workers aren’t provided with adequate bathrooms — spills from illicit pot farms into nearby streams.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Marijuana Enforcement Team served search warrants at several homes in Phelan, Calif. on June 21, 2018. Water regulators are now helping lead law enforcement to illegal cannabis farms. (Sarah Alvarado for The Sun/SCNG)

Sometimes, licensed cultivators unknowingly cause problems when they grade land for farms or roads without properly controlling the associated debris. The sediment churned up by such grading can cause serious problems with water flow and for nearby fisheries, West said.

To tackle these problems, the Water Board’s Cannabis Enforcement Unit in 2014 launched a pilot program in Northern California.

A small task force began helping California Department of Fish and Wildlife investigate damage from marijuana farms hidden in the rural areas of places such as Humboldt and Mendocino counties. Since then, West said the growing Northern California team has participated in hundreds of cannabis enforcement inspections.

The state Water Boards also launched a water quality permit program. All commercial cannabis cultivators who want annual licenses from the state must pay between $600 and $8,000 for a permit that shows they’re adhering to regulations aimed at protecting water quality and supplies.

So far, West said they’ve received 1,157 applications for water quality permits and enrolled 619 cultivation sites in the program. That includes 115 sites in Southern California’s coastal region, including much of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Expanding efforts

Proposition 64, the 2016 state law that legalized recreational marijuana, included a mandate and funding to expand programs aimed at offsetting the environmental harms caused by the cannabis industry.

The Water Board’s Southern California cannabis enforcement team was spun up in the past fiscal year. And while enforcement efforts will remain focused in Northern California, where West said impacts from outdoor cultivation are most prevalent, the agency has plans to expand efforts in Southern California going into 2019.

The local team now consists of just three people based in Santa Ana, but West said they plan to hire four more staffers this fiscal year.

Water regulators are still learning about the impacts of cannabis cultivation in Southern California, West said.

Unlike in Northern California, where illegal marijuana farms are often large-scale outdoor grows hidden deep on public land, farms in Southern California are more likely to be indoors on property owned by the growers. While those operations might not pose risks to endangered salmon in nearby streams (a problem linked to marijuana farms in Northern California), West said Southern California farms are more likely to discharge dangerous chemicals into community water supplies.

Enforcement a challenge

Water regulators find problematic cannabis farms in a variety of ways.

Staff does proactive investigations in areas known to have illicit cannabis cultivation or where water problems have been reported, West said. They might use aerial photography to find hidden marijuana farms. And, increasingly, West said they’re learning about unlicensed farms through tips — often from others in the cannabis industry.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Marijuana Enforcement Team detained people at unlicensed farms in Phelan, Calif. on June 21, 2018. Most marijuana crimes are now misdemeanors. (Sarah Alvarado for The Sun/SCNG)

“Cultivators that are putting in the time, money and effort to comply with our regulatory program are a little more likely to turn in their neighbors who aren’t,” she said.

If the investigators find violations from cannabis farmers who are trying to comply with state law, West said they’ll often issue a warning letter telling them to fix the issue and how to avoid a repeat in the future.  But if they find egregious violations, West said, they can issue clean-up orders or civil fines. And they can refer the case to local police for potential criminal penalties.

“We’re not law enforcement,” West said. “We’re scientists and technical staff.”

Law enforcement agencies say they’ll take all the help they can get.

During a California Bureau of Cannabis Control Advisory Group Meeting on July 19 in San Diego, Jonathan Feldman from the California Police Chiefs Association said resources are stretched thin, with police departments struggling to recruit qualified candidates and budgets still bouncing back from the economic crisis of 2008. He said adding enforcement of the multibillion cannabis industry in the mix has placed a “tremendous burden” on local police departments, with growing pressure for crackdowns on the state’s still-massive black market.

Meanwhile, Prop. 64 downgraded almost every marijuana-related crime in California. Most violations are now either legal or misdemeanors, with a July report from Attorney General Xavier Becerra showing felony cannabis arrests down 74 percent in 2017.

The only way marijuana crimes can still be felonies in California is if they involve sales to minors, if the operator is caught three or more times, or if “aggravated” conditions are involved, such as the person being a registered sex offender or causing environmental damage — including harming watersheds.

While both the Los Angeles County and Riverside County District Attorney’s Offices work with state agencies on marijuana-related issues, spokesmen for the agencies declined to say how environmental violations come into play or to answer other questions about how they’re handling such cases since the passage of Prop. 64. They said discussing such strategies could compromise enforcement efforts.

But West said district attorneys often rely on Water Board staff reports and testimony to help bring felony enhancements against marijuana cultivators. And she expects that partnership to continue as her agency steps up its cannabis enforcement efforts across the state in the months and years to come.