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Siskiyou County water ordinances send ripple effect through community; legal action in process

To try to stop the cultivation of illegal marijuana, the county has taken steps and passed a series of new emergency ordinances that are now causing ripple effects through the county, impacting land owners and growers that are legal in certain areas.

Posted: May 25, 2021 3:35 PM
Updated: May 26, 2021 11:23 AM

BIG SPRINGS, Calif. -- Siskiyou County has seen a growing number of cannabis farmers move into the area, especially within the last five years. According to the Siskiyou County Sheriff, a large number of these grows are illegal for various reasons.

To try to stop the cultivation of illegal marijuana, the county has taken steps and passed a series of new emergency ordinances that are now causing ripple effects through the county — impacting land owners and growers that are legal in certain areas.

At the beginning of May, there was a large protest outside the Siskiyou County Superior Court in Yreka. The Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors voted to approve and immediately enact two emergency ordinances, with a goal of stopping water usage at illegal marijuana farms.

“One was the water trucks being on county roads and certain county roads. And then the other one was you cannot, uh, move water from a parcel to parcel that you don't own without a permit,” said Stephen Griset, a farmer in Siskiyou County.

Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue says the permit is simple, saying that it’s not designed to restrict people that are transporting water lawfully.

However, some farmers in the area told NewsWatch 12 that those permits haven’t been easy to come by.

“I've heard of people calling asking for the permit and they were told that they're not available yet,” said Griset.

NewsWatch 12 attempted to find the permit after talking with Sheriff LaRue. A quick Google search produced a Water Tender Permit Application.

Many of the roads that require a permit surround the Shasta Vista subdivision, an area that is known to have multiple marijuana grows.

One land owner that spoke with NewsWatch 12 lives in the Shasta Vista subdivision but doesn’t grow anything. Even so, he’s struggling to get water to his land; water that he uses to live throughout the summer.

“I'm just trying to survive here. You know what I mean? I live a very quiet life. I don't have nothing going on in here and I have nothing to hide,” said Russell Mathis, a subdivision land owner.

Mathis says the communication between the Sheriff’s Office and those that live in the subdivision that are impacted by the new ordinances has caused a lot of confusion and fear.

“It’s not like they came on the radio and told us, ‘we're going to stop water and if you're not a grower and you're affected, you can come through the water here, we'll make it accessible for you and make it so you could haul it home’. They didn't do that. It's just, ‘we don't care about you,'” said Mathis.

Mathis says he’s called the Sheriff’s Office before, concerned about changes to water regulation.

“He promised me, ‘We'll find you water. We promise it won't affect you,’ and then I never heard from him ever again,” said Mathis.

Now, Mathis says he feels like he caught in the middle.

“The Sheriff can go by, he knows who has wells, he knows who has gardens, they fly over all the time, they know, so they should know that there are a few people here that are going to get caught up in whatever's happening,” said Mathis.

The new ordinances have only been the latest in a string of water use issues in the county. Last year, when the county became aware of farmers providing water from their wells for illegal marijuana grows, they attempted to crack down on the water-sharing. One local farmer was sued after ignoring an order to stop the water transfers.

“We kind of felt the ordinance wasn’t based on a lot of solid law after we read it so we didn’t believe it was correct,” said Griset, who was sued by the county, “we wanted a judge to tell us what we were doing wasn’t legal so we continued to fill trucks until the end of the season.”

That lawsuit from the Siskiyou County District Attorney’s Office prompted a legal question of whether or not prohibiting water for cannabis is legal.

“It’s a good case study in how politicians attack problems,” said Paul Minasian, Griset’s lawyer who focuses on agriculture and water rights litigation. “Stage one, in 2014 [Siskiyou County] adopted an ordinance that states you can't grow cannabis for commercial purposes in the county. Next step, the ordinance that was adopted in August said, ‘we have determined that if you pump water from groundwater and use the ground water on cannabis, it is a waste and unreasonable use of water under California law.'”

Minasian says in order for the county to declare water use on cannabis “unreasonable” there needs to be a court hearing, which has yet to happen.

“The question the Grisets asked me is; is that legal? And, and i said, no,” explained Minasian.

According to Minasian, the county has found water use on cannabis to be wasteful and unreasonable use because of an estimate that’s been provided to the county, stating that each cannabis plant uses four to six gallons of water per day, an estimate that Minasian says is not based on fact.

“The only facts that were provided to the county were, the Sheriff did a calculation and he said, every plant of cannabis uses four to six gallons of water per day,” said Minasian.

NewsWatch 12 asked Sheriff LaRue where that four-to-six-gallon estimate came from — we were told that was just a figure the Sheriff had heard.

NewsWatch 12’s Alicia Rubin asked if there was any source for how the estimates for water use on cannabis were gathered, the Sheriff’s response was, “From what I know, just talking to people that I know that work in the field that see day to day how much water, you know, how much the plants are drinking, so to speak, they've talked to other people in the community and that's, that's where I know the information comes from. It's just people that have experience in that area.”

NewsWatch 12 reached out to OSU Extension Office to get its estimate on how much water an average marijuana plant uses but the extension office didn’t have that information either and referred the question to the Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District, which has yet to respond with an estimate. New Frontier Data, a data and intelligence authority for the cannabis industry has released a report about water-use on cannabis, the report was coauthored by the Resource Innovation Institute and Berkley Cannabis Research Center. According to Belushi Farms, an average marijuana plant will use one gallon per plant per day for the early season and two gallons per day for hotter months.

Minasian argues that what is happening in Siskiyou county is an overreach and is not following the proper legal procedure.

“That's the issue we're raising with the court, saying you have to have a hearing to determine this. The board of supervisors can't do it as a political matter by putting it on an agenda as an ‘emergency matter,'” said Minasian.

Right now, the case brought by Mr. Minasian challenging the county’s water regulation on cannabis is in a waiting period.

“The California court granted the original demurrer, which was nothing more than the courts saying to the District Attorney's Office, ‘I need you to put the facts a little clearer in your, in your complaint,'” said Minasian.

Minasian is now waiting for the hearing on the first water amendment the county made. He believes it could take a month or two for the hearing to happen. Minasian argues that actions taken in the meantime, such as the recent water transportation ordinances, are continuing to further the county’s legal violations.

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