Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – As Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors prepares to approve a new commercial cannabis production ordinance, the Friends of the Eel River watershed protection group, the Yurok tribe and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have called for holding off on further permitting.
The extent of county permitting was debated as supervisors considered the ordinance and its Environmental Impact Report (EIR) at an all-day hearing on March 19.
An advocacy collaboration between the Yurok tribe and Friends of the Eel River (FOER) covers large areas of northern and southern Humboldt. The group and the tribe issued a joint press release the day of the hearing headlined “Tribe, conservationists demand tougher cannabis regulations.”
During a public comment session at the hearing, Frankie Myers, the Yurok tribal heritage preservation officer, referred to ceremonial sites in the tribe’s ancestral territory as “our churches” and added, “Our church is very large and encompasses many watersheds and we need to be respectful of that – we need to preserve and protect those areas.”
Scott Greacen, Friends of the Eel’s conservation director, said the new ordinance’s EIR needs to be redone or at least recirculated before the county lifts a moratorium on cannabis permit applications.
Small-scale grows have been described as being preferable but Greacen said sedimentation and water diversions from tributaries of the South Fork Eel River are particularly impactful and need further analysis.
“Just because a producer is relatively small-scale, that doesn’t mean their watershed impacts are de minimis,” he added. “Small is not necessarily more sustainable – that’s why we need to do the analytic work to figure out what the impacts of the permits we’ve already issued are before we go issuing a bunch of new permits in watersheds where we’ve got salmon and steelhead going extinct.”
Those concerns were also highlighted by Scott Bauer of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Watershed Enforcement Team.
He told supervisors that the EIR “does not provide a thorough analysis of cumulative effects, including significant impacts to watershed resources.”
At issue is a proposal to set the county’s maximum number of additional permits under the ordinance at 5,000. An adaptive management approach would include monitoring of the county’s 12 main watersheds for impacts.
About 2,300 permit applications were submitted under the county’s current ordinance. No further applications have been accepted past a December 31, 2016 deadline but approval of the new ordinance would lift that.
The advocacy of the tribe, FOER and the CDFW suggests that the present level of cultivation in sensitive watershed areas shouldn’t be affirmed through permitting. But homestead-scale cultivators challenged that.
Southern Humboldt grower Mark Richard acknowledged the presence of irresponsible operations but said “most of the farmers are doing really good stuff – they’re not trying to bash the environment.”
Another resident described well-run outdoor grows as Humboldt’s specialty.
“I would like to see a little bit of consideration to the small family growers,” she continued. “All of the ones I personally know live on their parcels, raise their families and we are not interested in polluting the water or degrading the land that we own and hopefully will own for generations.”
Supervisor Rex Bohn said issuing more permits will limit watershed impacts, not add to them.
“We have to understand, the environmental degradation on a permitted grow is very little if anything because they have water storage, they don’t have illegal water diversion and if they’re going to sell it on the market we obviously don’t have pesticides,” he continued. “I like all the people that have recently gotten concerned -- because we don’t have a timber industry and we’re losing the railroad so they’ve got to jump on the next popular bandwagon -- but I think we’re all cognizant of what we need to do with our watersheds.”
Southern Humboldt Supervisor Estelle Fennell suggested the county’s small-scale growers deserve the opportunity to participate in a new, regulated market.
“I heard people talking about not lifting the moratorium, not moving forward with more applications,” she said. “I absolutely think that’s unconscionable, to exclude legacy farmers because they didn’t have the money or the wherewithal to come in before the moratorium.”
She added, “We heard a lot about bringing small farmers in and I do think we need to commit to that so I really do want to see us going forward.”
Due to the volume of written material associated with the ordinance and its EIR, supervisors held off on approvals and set April 10 as the next hearing date.
Other proposals of the new ordinance include removal of a 600-foot school bus stop setback requirement, a four-acre per person cultivation permit limit and 1,000-foot setbacks from the borders of city spheres of influence, tribal areas and community planning areas.