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Unlicensed Cannabis Cultivation in California: A Greater Drain on Water Resources Than Licensed Operations

A recent study by the University of California, Berkeley, sheds light on the disparity in water usage between licensed and unlicensed cannabis farms in California's Humboldt and Mendocino Counties. The research, issued in February and titled "Water Use: Cannabis in Context," was conducted by the Berkeley Cannabis Research Center, a part of the College of Environmental Science Policy & Management. This center has been analyzing the water consumption of cannabis cultivation since 2017, and their latest findings are divided into four key questions.

The initial section of the study examines how cannabis cultivation's water usage compares to the stream flow in the area, particularly along the Northern California coast. It reveals that, overall, cannabis uses a minor portion of the surface water year-round, with a slight increase during the peak months of July through September. However, in certain clustered farming areas, cannabis can account for more than 10% of the available water supplies during the dry season, with unlicensed farms being the primary contributors to this demand.

The study further compares the water demand of unlicensed and licensed cannabis farms, highlighting that unlicensed operations occupy a larger area and thus have a significantly higher water demand. These unlicensed farms often lack on-site water storage, leading to direct extraction from local watersheds, especially during peak demand in August. The report emphasizes that the water consumption of unlicensed farms far exceeds that of their licensed counterparts, especially during the dry periods when water availability is at its lowest.

In exploring the water consumption patterns of Humboldt and Mendocino Counties' residents relative to licensed cannabis grows, the researchers found that residential water use surpasses that of licensed cannabis cultivation by 97%. Licensed farms, on average, demand only one-tenth the amount of water compared to residential needs. The study also notes that other agricultural practices in the region consume significantly more water than both cannabis cultivation and residential usage.

The concluding section of the research observes the water usage of licensed cannabis farms, noting that these operations utilize 4% or less of stream flow in August, with some not requiring additional water storage. The researchers suggest that if licensed farms had sufficient water storage to cover at least half of their annual demand, the impact on local watersheds would be minimal, ensuring sustainable water use in cannabis cultivation.

This scientific brief arrives at a crucial time, aiming to inform voters ahead of the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative (HCRI) vote, also known as Measure A. This measure, if passed, could significantly impact local growers by restricting farm modifications. A March 2023 report prepared for the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors by the county's Planning Department outlines the detrimental effects of HCRI, particularly on small-scale operations. The measure is critiqued for hindering environmental protection efforts and adaptability within the evolving cannabis industry.

Mark Lovelace, a former Board of Supervisors member with extensive experience in cannabis regulation, has publicly opposed Measure A. In an op-ed for the Times Standard, he argues that the measure would disadvantage small Humboldt County cannabis farms, making them nonviable due to restrictive size limits and a lack of adaptability. Lovelace's analysis warns of the severe economic implications for small growers, urging a vote against Measure A to protect local cannabis businesses from becoming uncompetitive.

This comprehensive study and ongoing debate underscore the complex balance between environmental sustainability, regulatory frameworks, and the economic realities of cannabis cultivation in California, highlighting the need for informed decision-making as the industry continues to evolve.

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