Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Cannabis farmers concerned about Humboldt County’s movement toward new well use restrictions are relieved to learn that they’re off the table for now.
As the Board of Supervisors approved a drought emergency proclamation at its July 20 meeting, staff was directed to develop a “scope of work” for new well permitting criteria and possibly new ordinances regulating groundwater use.
But the most alarming recommendations from a Drought Task Force – curtailment of cannabis planting and a moratorium on new wells – are not being followed for now.
During a presentation, a chart showed that permit applications for wells peaked in 2016, the year that the county’s commercial cannabis ordinance went into effect.
Planning Director John Ford acknowledged public concern but said measures like cannabis curtailment respond to a supposed crisis that doesn’t exist now.
“While there is a great amount of public concern being expressed there is not a corresponding amount of empirical data showing that wells are going dry, showing that there is a crisis,” he said.
To stop groundwater-irrigated cannabis planting after August 11 – as recommended by the task force – would be unfair to farmers who have already purchased clones and invested in getting state licenses and county permits, Ford continued.
During a public comment period, cannabis farmers and consultants urged supervisors to back off of curtailment and the moratorium.
Ross Gordon of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance said the Drought Task Force’s recommendations are unnecessarily targeting the cannabis industry at a challenging time.
“We urge your board to move forward with a positive vision to develop long term resilience in our community in response to escalating drought and climate change rather than moving forward with policies that continue to single out the cannabis industry,” he said.
The county’s cannabis farmers are facing “unprecedented challenges” beyond drought and wildfire risk, he added, as “large-scale, corporate cannabis agriculture” in areas like central California has led to “market prices which have plummeted.”
The local cannabis industry’s uncertain future was highlighted by several speakers.
Arcata resident Kelly O’Roke is executive director of the Redwood Alternative Agriculture Fund, which “subsidizes environmental sustainability certification for licensed cannabis farmers.”
She related that last year’s closure of her former Arcata business, the Om Shala Yoga Studios, due to COVID-19 impacts left her with “no idea of what I was going to do, as a single mom, out of work and with school closed.”
A local cannabis farmer gave her “flexible work and some hope.”
O’Roke said the recommended restrictions would affect “the very people that the county is trying to build a resilient, sustainable and regulated industry with.”
But Alicia Hamann, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, recommended that the county take “immediate action” on non-domestic groundwater pumping. She told supervisors that Eel River salmon were impacted during the last drought phase and those conditions are returning.
It would be the only public comment on salmon concerns, as noted by Supervisor Mike Wilson.
“Usually that’s the driving issues – in the past, that’s just been what we talk about when we talk about water issues related to quantity and quality,” he said. “I just found that that was, from my perspective, lacking in this discussion.”
But Wilson added that the location of groundwater use is also relevant.
Hamann had named the lower Eel River basin as a specific area of concern. Asked by Supervisor Rex Bohn if groundwater pumping there is impacting Eel River flows, Environmental Services Manager Hank Seemann said it’s being studied but “today we don’t have any evidence of that.”
Supervisors don’t want to move quickly on the curtailment and moratorium options but may consider them again at some point. Ford said those options don’t respond to “crisis points at this time.”
Instead, supervisors approved the drought emergency proclamation and will discuss options for bolstering well permitting criteria sometime in August.
During the task force presentation, Deputy Public Works Director Hank Seemann reiterated what was reported to the board in late May – that the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District is in “good shape,” as winter rains filled its reservoir, Ruth Lake.
The district’s customers, including Arcata, the McKinleyville Community Services District and the City of Blue Lake, are all “in good condition for having secure water supply through this year,” Seemann said.