The Highs and Lows of Growing Weed

Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized forms of marijuana and more states are likely to follow. Marijuana sales have been on fire. In 2017, sales were expected to reach $9.7 billion, and analysts are predicting sales of $24.5 billion by 2021, as new states enter the market. Yet, behind the “green gold rush”, an insidious story is unfolding. One fostered by the green and the greed which comes with it. Ultimately one that kills.

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It’s well known that Mexican drug cartels are growing weed in remote locations of U.S. national forests. California has been hit the hardest by this illegal activity. As reported by Reuter’s, there are an estimated 50,000 grow sites in California which is believed to comprise about 90% of all illegal pot farming in the United States.  Even with the state’s recent legalization of marijuana, officials expect only about 16,000 of these growers to seek commercial cultivation licenses.

Lack of law enforcement in these vast, remote areas is exploited by growers. The illegal operators are emboldened by limited oversight and will defend their turf if they feel threatened. The Atlantic online article noting that “Growers have followed, detained, threatened, pursued, and shot at officers and civilians, including scientists and field techs. One Forest Service biologist who stumbled upon a grow site in Sequoia National Forest was chased for close to an hour by armed growers.”

Not only are these areas unsafe for any unsuspecting soul rambling about, they are often havens for extremely toxic chemicals used as pesticides or rodenticides. Reuter’s published an online article which details how growers are using “fertilizers and pesticides long restricted or banned in the United States, including carbofuran and zinc phosphide.”  These chemicals are so toxic that enforcement officials have been hospitalized after touching plants treated with these chemicals or handling equipment used in their application. Now imagine smoking or ingesting some of that.

Other lethal chemicals found on remote grow sites include aluminum phosphide, for killing rodents and insects; bromadiolone, a restricted-use neurotoxic rodenticide; brodifacoum, an anticoagulant rodenticide; and malathion, an organophosphate insecticide that’s been compared to a watered-down version of the nerve agent sarin.

There is concern that some of these toxin-laden plants are infiltrating legalized medicinal marijuana markets, potentially impacting people with serious health conditions like AIDS or cancer. The Atlantic article noted that “studies and investigations in Colorado and Oregon have found pesticides on marijuana in legal dispensaries, including in products that were supposedly certified pesticide-free.”

Unsuspecting wildlife has taken the greatest hit. In addition to the rodents targeted by growers, the toxic materials have worked their way up the food chain. Researchers at the University of California – Davis revealed that tissue samples from spotted owls and barred owls tested positive for rat poison.  This is a significant concern because the northern spotted owls are listed as a threatened species under federal and state Endangered Species acts.

Other animals found dead at grow sites include Pacific fishers, bears, vultures, foxes, and deer; presumably from ingesting one or more of these chemicals. There are even concerns about cattle being poisoned by marijuana farms. These illicit activities also impact and kill aquatic organisms; including fish.

Another pressing concern for California is the impact on local water supplies. California just came out of a 15-year drought. Conditions got so bad in 2015 that Governor Jerry Brown imposed mandatory water reductions of 25% on residents, businesses, and farms. The restrictions continued until March of 2017.

Marijuana is known to be a high-water crop. State officials suggest that growers are watering each plant with about 6 gallons of water per day. Multiply that by 50,000 grow sites and thousands of plants per site and you have monumental water use. As reported in The Atlantic, “the 1.1 million illegal pot plants removed in California in 2016 would have used somewhere around 1.3 billion gallons of water—as much as 10,000 average California households do in a year.” This water use figure becomes even more daunting when you consider enforcement officials consider that 50,000 grow sites state-wide is likely to be a low estimate.

To help regulate excessive water use for cannabis growers, the California State Water Board has established specific “Cannabis Cultivation Water Rights” to help protect stream flows, wetlands, aquatic habitats and even groundwater from negative impacts of cannabis cultivation. These regulations will be applied to legal cultivators of weed but it is extremely unlikely any illegal grower will even acknowledge such regulations.

Illegal growers are only interested in a successful harvest and not in helping the environment. Several reports have verified the intentional destruction of wetland areas, extensive diversion of stream flows, excessive pumping of groundwater as well as toxic chemicals leaching into soils and waterways, potentially impacting downstream users.

Unfortunately, these destructive practices are likely to continue as long as there is a demand for illegal marijuana. Some advocates suggest that legalization in all states will stop or greatly reduce illegal cultivation since the industry will become highly regulated. Until that happens, conditions are likely to remain the same.

Right now, the best thing that legal marijuana users can do for themselves and the environment is to find out where and how their pot is grown. Any legitimate dispensary should be willing to provide that information. If they can’t, shop somewhere else. This issue is too important to go up in smoke.

The Hard Truth about Soft Water

Salt… It’s a known killer but probably not in the way you think. Most of us know the health impacts of too much salt in our diets, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and edema. Though few of us probably think about how salt from our water softeners may hurt our landscape plants.

“Hard water” is water containing large amounts of naturally occurring calcium, magnesium or other minerals. These minerals interfere with the cleaning power of household soaps and detergents by reducing soap’s ability to lather.  They react with ingredients in soap to produce a sticky scum which can cause plumbing problems.

Calcium and magnesium tend to be less water soluble than sodium and will “precipitate” or come out of solution as a pasty “scale”.  You may have seen evidence of scale as a white coating on the inside of your tea kettle, hot water heater, pipes or other containers which hold water. Scale impedes water flow through pipes and is a poor conductor of heat creating two undesirable situations for your household.

The byproducts created by water softeners are what can harm plants.  Most softeners contain several cubic feet of plastic resin coated with sodium ions. As tap water flows through the conditioner, the positive calcium and magnesium ions are “exchanged” with the positive sodium ions on the resin. They essentially switch places. The calcium and magnesium ions stick to the plastic resin and the sodium ions are released into the tap water. This is why softened water has a mild salty taste.

Eventually the plastic resin becomes loaded with calcium and magnesium and needs to be “recharged” with sodium. That’s where the sodium chloride pellets we buy come into play. Every few days, the water softener flushes out the hard minerals with a concentrated brine solution and replaces those minerals with sodium. The excess salts are discharged as part of household wastewater.

If landscape plants are watered with soft water, they can be “burned” by the sodium in the softened water. Symptoms of salt injury include stunted growth, yellowed foliage and leaf margins which begin to curl and turn brown. These symptoms are similar in appearance to drought stress and can be easily misinterpreted in our arid environment.

So what to do? Fortunately most professional installers are aware that water for outside use needs to remain separate from household water and they take the necessary steps to keep them apart.  Occasionally this separation step gets bypassed. In such cases, homeowners concerned about their landscape plants can switch to potassium chloride as their water softening salt.  Potassium is a macro-nutrient that plants need and won’t harm plants like sodium.

While at the Water Wise program, I perform residential on-site visits and was often asked whether it is important to separate soft water from outside spigots. Many of these visits were for people just moving to Arizona from moister states and they are not familiar with our dry climate. My response was usually very simple. Moist locations have a lot more precipitation than we do which helps flush salt out of the soil and away from plants, minimizing damage. Here salts build up in soils.

Does this mean you shouldn’t use water softeners? No, but it does suggest you need to have a better understanding of how your plumbing should complement your plants. Before installing a conditioning system, get details on how it will be installed and be sure the installers know about your landscape needs.

If you already have a system installed that does not separate inside and outside waters, consider switching to potassium chloride as your water softening salt. Your plants will thank you if you do!