Last month, hundreds of Emerald Triangle cannabis farmers received letters from the state threatening penalties unless they complied with California water quality regulations.

Thousands of growers in Northern California have complied with these regulations, to be extended statewide by 2018. But State Water Resources Control Board Office of Enforcement Director Cris Carrigan said that officials at the agency still have their work cut out for them.

“There has never been anything like this, dude,” Carrigan said with a laugh. “It’s a $10 billion industry in California that has been unregulated until now. So no, there has never been anything like this before.”

Carrigan said the state and regional water boards have come a long way in the past three to four years in terms of cannabis regulation, thanks largely to cannabis cultivators’ willingness to work toward compliance.

“They want to do it, but the question is can they overcome the hurdles after operating in secret for so long?” he asked.

Cost of compliance

The hurdles are plenty, mandatory — and expensive.

Emerald Heritage Farms founder and principal consultant Dani Burkhart in Humboldt County works with cultivators seeking to comply with various state regulations.

“It’s a lot of up-front costs for something you can’t amortize over time because you don’t know exactly how everything will play out over time,” she said. “It’s a huge investment. But it’s also something that is worthwhile for the environment. Ideally, these measures we’re taking are protecting the environment in a more enhanced fashion than what was previously going on.”

State water regulators are currently working to draft a statewide program to reduce water quality impacts caused by illegal cannabis cultivation, such as those caused by water diversions, road grading and clear-cutting. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

Burkhart said many farmers seeking to comply with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board’s Cannabis Cultivation Waste Discharge Regulatory Program will have to spend thousands of dollars to begin the permitting process. The program, adopted in August 2015, requires medical marijuana growers to comply with state and federal water quality laws pertaining to drainage, road construction, fertilizer storage, water sediment and temperature control, and water diversions. The program targets illegal water diversions, road grading, pesticide use and other environmentally harmful practices of the black market cannabis industry.

For many growers who either ignored or were ignorant of these standards, the cost of bringing their properties into good standing can start at a half a million dollars.

“I had a client spend $250,000 on a road to have it come into compliance,” Burkhart said.

The North Coast program works by placing marijuana grows into tiers dependent on the size and qualities of the site.

Those at the lowest tier need only comply with standard conditions to be in the water board’s good graces. Those at the highest tier must develop and submit a cleanup and restoration plan for their sites within a 45-day period, among several other conditions. The permit filing cost can range up to $10,000 depending on the farmer’s tier, and this fee has to be paid annually in order to renew the permit.

“And then if you’re not in the tier where you can self-report, then you have to pay a professional to do your water resource protection plan and reporting, which can be another $2,500 to $5,000 per year,” Burkhart said. “So you’re looking at $5,000 to $7,500 just to do the bare minimum of filing paperwork.”


Since the North Coast program took effect, Humboldt County cannabis farmers have led the rest of the Emerald Triangle and the North Coast counties in enrollment. But thousands more still have yet to take part in the mandatory program.

On Jan. 27, the North Coast water board mailed 785 enforcement letters to potential cannabis farmers in the Rattlesnake Creek watershed in Trinity County. Another 400 letters were sent to cannabis farmers in Humboldt and Mendocino counties last year.

“There are 35 days for people to respond to the letter, which could include a few different options,” the board’s Senior Water Resource Control Engineer Kason Grady said on Feb. 1. “There are some required actions that they either demonstrate that the order doesn’t apply to them or they provide proof that they have enrolled or they go ahead and enroll.”

As of last week, nearly 1,500 farmers in the North Coast water board’s six-county coverage area have signed up for the program, Grady said.

The State Water Board is currently working to extend this program statewide, Carrigan said, with a draft permit set to be released within the next two months. From there, a lengthy public vetting process will take place. Carrigan said that the state’s plan will likely have some similarities to the North Coast and Central Valley water board’s cannabis regulations.

But enforcing these rules for thousands upon thousands of farmers will require an ample amount of state funding and coordination with local governments. Carrigan said they have sent funding estimates to Gov. Jerry Brown, but said those are confidential until Brown decides what to do.

“To me the biggest challenge is daylighting this activity as a regular business and in that way, we’ll be able to protect water qualify and rights better than we have in the past,” Carrigan said.

County-by-county breakdown of the 1,497 enrollment applications submitted to the North Coast Regional Water Board’s water quality program for cannabis farmers as of Feb. 1:

  • Del Norte: 1
  • Humboldt: 973
  • Mendocino: 167
  • Siskiyou: 2
  • Sonoma: 26
  • Trinity: 328

Source: North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board

The number of letters sent to cannabis farmers that have not complied with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board’s water quality regulatory program:

  • 203 letters sent to landowners in the Chamise Creek and lower east branch South Fork Eel River watersheds on June 21, 2016.
  • 166 letters sent to landowners in the Mad River watershed on Aug. 25, 2016.
  • 785 letters sent to landowners in the Rattlesnake Creek watershed in Trinity County.

Source: Kason Grady, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board