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.

Image Source: Getty Images

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.

Water Flows Uphill to Money

“Life is not fair” is a lesson many people learn in early childhood. Whether it stems from watching popular students get picked first during elementary gym class or being forced to turn over lunch money to school yard bullies, some events in life just seem blatantly unfair.  For many people in California this theme may still ring true because, as the saying goes, “water flows uphill to money”.

A recent comparison of water rates in two middle class neighborhoods in California revealed an extreme example of unfairness. UCLA Blue Print published a Fall 2016 online article on water rate inequities. The piece called attention to the wide disparity in prices that water districts charge. It focused on the differences in water prices for the working class communities of Lynwood and Pico Rivera. In Pico Rivera the annual water bill averaged less than $200 per family a year whereas “in Lynwood, that same amount of water costs a family more than $1,500.”1

What causes such price disparity? The short answer for these residents is it depends upon where the water is coming from. Residents in Pico Rivera get their water locally from groundwater. Residents in Lynwood are “stuck with the privately owned Park Water Company, which purchases water conveyed from elsewhere and has some of the county’s highest rates.”2

Unfortunately such situations aren’t that unusual in California. A quick glance online will reveal several other similar articles. Last fall, the New York Times featured a story on how stingy water users have been fined for using too much water while in upscale Los Angeles hills, a man dubbed “the Wet Prince of Belair” proceeded to use more than 30,000 gallons of water per day — “the equivalent of 400 toilet flushes each hour with two showers running constantly, with enough water left over to keep the lawn perfectly green” and was never fined.3

Meanwhile, this fall, wealthy people in Hillsborough California who clearly can afford to pay for any amount of water they would like to use, are playing bully by suing their town for using Tiered Water Rates to help encourage conservation. What’s the reason behind the lawsuit? The aggrieved residents say “Hillsborough water officials violated Proposition 218, a state law that makes it illegal for government to charge more for a service than it costs to provide.”4

Legal Counsel for the plaintiffs freely acknowledges that it’s not about the money but about the principle.  They feel their “town is running amok.”5 Clearly encouraging saving water in a long-term drought is akin to some socialist movement in a pro-capitalist area. Why save water when they can always buy more?

How incredibly frustrating it must be for California water managers to establish water conservation policy and set rates given such constraints and attitudes. When did water become an entitlement for the privileged and not a resource for everyone?



  1. Banks, Sandy. “A Problem: Water and Inequality”, UCLA Blue Print, Fall 2016. Web. 28-December 2016.
  2. Ibid, Banks.
  3. Lovett, Ian. “In California, Stingy Water Users Are Fined in Drought, While the Rich Soak”. New York Times. 21 November 2015. Web. 28 December 2016.
  4. Rogers, Paul. “California Drought: Wealthy Hillsborough Residents Sue, Saying Water Rates are Too High”. Mercury News. 30 November 2016. Web. 28 December 2016.
  5. Ibid, Rogers.

What’s a Wildlife Guzzler?

Wildlife guzzlers….have you heard of them? They sound like a two-can party hat worn by the frat boys in “Animal House” but they are not. They are simple devices that collect rainwater for use by animals in rural or remote areas.

Image Source: Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service

Guzzlers can range from homemade designs using 30 or 55 gallon plastic barrels to in-ground, networked systems holding 25,000 gallons of water.  The size of the guzzler depends on the type and amount of animals using the guzzler. Small guzzlers can provide water for birds and small animals, whereas larger guzzlers would provide water for cattle and other large animals.

Other design factors include the location of existing water sources, mobility of animals, local rainfall patterns and the ability to maintain the site. Good planning is important before construction begins.

Historically, guzzlers have been used by state and federal highway departments to reduce the number of animal fatalities by vehicles in rural areas.  The watering stations are placed in undeveloped areas to lure animals away from roadways and reduce the need for the animals to cross highways in search of water.

Another use for guzzlers is to avoid wildlife and human interaction in populated areas. As the drought in Arizona continues into its 20th year, there is growing concern about the potentially dangerous mix of large predatory animals, such as mountain lions and bears, coming closer and closer to human environments looking for water.

In our state, Arizona Game & Fish has installed more than 850 wildlife watering stations of various designs since their first “Arizona guzzler” in 1946.  Two new watering stations are located here in the Huachuca Mountains – Black Canyon and West Hunter Canyon in the Coronado National Forest.  Both of these designs were developed to reduce animal – vehicle strikes.

There are many benefits associated with the use of guzzlers. The Arizona Big Horn Sheep Society notes that where water sources are few, artificial water devices increase game bird, amphibian and big horn sheep populations.

Wildlife guzzlers are also becoming mainstream. Guzzlers have primarily been built by conservation districts, government agencies and land trusts, but now scout troops, landowners and environmental organizations are creating them as special projects.

There are economic benefits to installing guzzlers too. Ranchers in the Big Bend area of Texas have installed wildlife guzzlers to increase mule deer populations on their land. These ranchers earn extra money by leasing hunting rights to sportsmen. In this case, water guzzlers provide an economic incentive for ranchers and are a fringe benefit to other wildlife species in the area, providing a win-win scenario for everyone – except maybe the mule deer.

Community oriented guzzler projects have also sprung up. The Hill Country Master Gardeners in Texas, part of the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service, have gotten together with the Boys and Girls Club of Fredericksburg to make a birdbath guzzler at their Native Plant Center.  Detailed plans of their simple guzzler design are posted on

It’s exciting to think the Hill Country Master Gardeners and Boys and Girls Club might be on to something. Their simple design could easily be duplicated by scout groups or other civic organizations. Every southern Arizona community could benefit from teaming up to build rainwater catchment guzzlers for wildlife, and we can all drink (water) to that!

“Honey, go check the pump”

As you head to the kitchen to make your first pot of morning brew, imagine turning on the faucet and no water comes out.  How would you feel? What thoughts would go through your head?

If you’re a rural homeowner, you may wonder if the circuit breaker got tripped for your water pump or worse, maybe you need a new pump.  How flabbergasted would you be to find out there’s no water in your well?  This is not a scene from some apocalyptic movie. It’s already happened in several communities in Arizona due to groundwater overdraft.  Overdraft occurs when the level of water under the ground (the water table) is lowered often due to excessive groundwater pumping.

On June 7 2015, featured a story on a similar scenario in the Willcox area of Cochise County.  Jen and Ralph Score came home from church to find their well had run dry. Willcox farmers John Hart and Jim Graham both noticed groundwater levels dropping and mentioned increasing costs to pump water for their crops.

This was not the first time homeowners turned on their taps to find nothing there. In 2014, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) responded to concerned Cochise County residents by conducting a survey of well conditions in the Willcox Basin area. The results were startling. Of the 60 responses, 18 wells had gone dry, 9 had declining water levels or lowered production and 27 reported nearby wells going dry and/or concern over current conditions. Only 2 respondents had no current well problems.  (

Much to his credit, newly elected Arizona Governor Doug Ducey announced the formation of the Arizona Water Initiative in the Fall of 2015. The initiative continues the work of ADWR’s 2015 “Strategic Vision for Water Supply Sustainability.” In Track One of his plan, called the Planning Area Process, “ADWR will identify and prioritize the 22 planning areas” with the express intent to “work together with local stakeholders to create solutions that Arizona can then implement to meet future water demands.”

At the first Arizona Water Initiative meeting for the Cochise Planning area in March 2016, Frank Corkhill, Chief Hydrologist for ADWR, rattled off a litany of declining ground water levels determined from index wells in the area. The four largest declines being Willcox  144 feet decline since 1966, San Simon 174 feet decline since 1962, Bowie  181 feet decline since 1947 and Kansas Settlement 186 feet decline since 1964. Also of concern, the rapid decline in Sunsites at 100 feet since 1990.

At the same meeting ADWR Assistant Deputy Director Gerry Walker gave a general outline of ground water management tools under the State’s 1980 Groundwater Management Act. She talked about Active Management Areas (AMAs) established for five urban areas and Irrigation Non-expansion Areas (INAs) in three agricultural areas where over pumping was a concern at the time the Act was established.  In the rest of the state, mostly rural areas, wells must be drilled legally but are only subject to “beneficial use” – essentially allowing a well owner to pump as much as they want.

Most rural well owners are alright with beneficial use – as long as the water continues to flow. What caused the biggest concern for the audience that day was Walker’s comment that groundwater is a “public resource.” You see in Arizona’s early water history that simply wasn’t the case. Water was granted to pioneers and settlers under a system called Prior Appropriation – basically first in time, first in right.

That public resource comment really irked some of the long time ranching families and others sitting in the room. Many of whom strongly feel that if the State tries to regulate rural water they’ll just drill more wells and drill them deeper which will only add to the water problem.  To these folks, it’s a property rights issue and the water under their property is not a public resource – it’s theirs.

If you were a water policy expert in Arizona, how would you handle such a challenge?


© Sandra Hurlbut,  2016

Paving the Way with Porous Pavement

Here’s an engineering riddle:  What has the texture of a Rice Krispie treat but is strong enough to support a fire truck? No, it’s not a snack for Superman. It’s permeable pavement.

Photo – National Ready Mix Concrete Association (used with permission)

Permeable pavement, also commonly referred to as pervious or porous pavement, is often created using either asphalt or concrete.  It can also include a wide variety of materials such as open-joint paving blocks (called pavers), decomposed granite or gravel pavement, synthetic turf, crushed glass and even wooden decks or boardwalks. The main advantage of all these options is the ability of the material to allow water to flow through it. According to some pervious concrete, allows “over 300 inches of water per hour to pass through.”

Porous pavement has been around for a few decades and its applications are increasing. Primarily developed as a form of stormwater control, it allows rainwater to seep into the ground instead of contributing to storm drain run-off. Moisture prone states have been using this technique since the 1970’s to control runoff, erosion, flooding and to help recharge aquifers close to the surface.

This technology is gaining new ground in thirsty states like Arizona and California. noted that western states have shown an interest in using pervious concrete for its environmental benefits. “For example, pervious concrete is helping communities in California and Washington restore groundwater supplies and reduce pollution of coastal waters, which can endanger fragile aquatic ecosystems and even swimmers.”

Here in Arizona, a number of communities throughout the state have employed pervious pavement in Green Building applications. Flagstaff featured Arizona’s first use of pervious concrete at a parking lot near the Applied Research & Development building, an award winning LEED building at Northern Arizona University.

The City of Scottsdale installed pervious concrete parking at a Park & Ride on Thunderbird and Scottsdale Road in 2014.  Scottsdale Green Building Project Manager Anthony Floyd noted several benefits from using the material. He specifically mentioned how this application acts as an alternative retention basin and therefore re-appropriates land that ordinarily would be dedicated to a retention basin. Also the large pore space or “voids” within the material helps mitigate the heat island effect common in urban areas.

Gary Meyers, Senior Project Manager for the Scottsdale Park & Ride project stated the project has been “well received” and gave the technology a “thumbs up” with “no performance issues to date.”

In addition, Arizona State University (ASU) installed pervious pavement at a parking lot located at the ASU Art Museum in Tempe in 2007 and the City of Glendale installed 140,000 square feet for the Glendale Park & Ride in 2008.

Progressive Hardscape of Phoenix was the primary contractor involved in the Scottsdale, Tempe and Glendale projects. Mike Riggs, General Manager of Progressive Hardscape noted that the cost of permeable concrete is coming more in line with conventional concrete and the applications are increasing. Riggs shared that, depending upon project size and location, the unit cost of permeable concrete can range between $6 – $8 per square foot; about 20% more than typical concrete.

To really determine the viability of using permeable pavement as an alternative to conventional materials, the overall project goals need to be assessed. When considering the environmental benefits, the ability to re-appropriate the land as well as the cost of typical stormwater management systems, permeable pavement can often be a viable economic alternative.

All this is encouraging news for drought prone states like California and Arizona where water retention and infiltration is a key component of economic growth.

– Sandra Hurlbut

Sushi, Seaweed and Sewage

Ah, the delectable taste of sushi. Depending upon on the type of sushi you choose, those tidbits of tastiness embraced in a dark green “nori” wrap are actually encased in seaweed. “Seaweed?” you say. Yes. Seaweed.

Nori is the Japanese name for edible seaweed species of the algae genus Porphyra. While this algae has been a delightful addition to cuisine for centuries, other forms of algae are being put to use in industrial applications ranging from biofuels to wastewater.

Algaewheel image used with permission.

Arizona can pride itself on being on the cutting edge of algae biofuel research. In the Fall 2014 issue of Arizona Water Resource, The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Water Resources Research Center (say that three times, fast), reported on two algae testbed projects being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. The goal of this research is to promote advances in algal technology while being sensitive to the emerging technology’s water footprint.

Essentially what researchers are trying to do is figure out the best conditions to produce a large quantity of algae-based biofuel with minimal water usage. Algae’s high lipid content and the fact it is a renewable resource are two reasons it is suitable as a biofuel.  Currently “estimates for water use range from 3 gallons of water per gallon of algal biofuel to a thousand times that quantity.” With such a disparity, clearly more research needs to be done to minimize water use while maximizing biofuel production. Still, as oil supplies continue to dwindle, we can remain hopeful that algae may become a potential alternative renewable source of fuel.

Another promising algal innovation is from an Indianapolis based company called OneWater. They have developed a small scale waste water treatment system called the “Algaewheel” which was awarded the 2015 Water Environment Federation (WEF) Innovative Technology Award.

Typical waste water treatment systems use a mixture of microorganisms called “activated sludge” to breakdown waste products using a series of aeration tanks, clarifiers, filters and digesters. Most treatment plants are large scale and serve an entire community. They are expensive to build and operate and are usually located on the outskirts of town to reduce the nuisance conditions of odor and noise,

The Algaewheel system is remarkably simple. True to its name, it is essentially a series of rotating wheels coated with a biofilm of algae. OneW
ater’s company website describes the process saying “Algae grow on rotating wheels, using light, CO2 and nutrients. Algae produce oxygen, consume carbon-dioxide, and generate polysaccharides (sugars). Bacteria consume the oxygen and sugars and produce carbon dioxide – completing the cycle.”

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) retrofitted their seasonal waste treatment plant at Summit Lake State Park with an Algaewheel system with very good results. Commonwealth Engineers, the consulting engineers for the IDNR Summit Lake project, noted seasonal waste treatment systems have special challenges because the variability in flow rate and load can make it difficult for small treatment systems to meet permitted effluent levels.

Commonwealth Engineers has been pleased with the results at Summit Lake State Park. Their website mentions several benefits the Algaewheel waste water system offers.  Specifically, “it is modest in cost, easy to operate and maintain, readily meets effluent standards even with high variability in flows / loadings, and is operated at a fraction of the electrical costs required by competing “activated sludge” package plant facilities.”

So next time you’re out for sushi, remember that algae isn’t just for lunch anymore.

– Sandra Hurlbut

*I wrote this article in the Fall of 2015 for the Southern Arizona Contractors Association.

East Meets West

Living in the arid west, most of us are keenly aware of how precious water is.  Just being outdoors in the sun for a bit is subtle incentive to drink water to quench our thirst. Most of us don’t leave home without a bottle of water in our car, purse or backpack. It’s just natural to bring water with us.

This hasn’t always been the case in eastern states. Certainly when I was growing up in the northeast, we never carried bottled water with us. In fact, I don’t even remember bottled water being available as a child. Water was always close by so why would anyone buy it?

The convenience and easy accessibility of water in the east has dramatically changed. Incidents of contamination, crumbling infrastructure and unexpected drought have left many eastern locales scrambling for solutions to an uncommon problem – how to provide potable water of sufficient quality and quantity under stressful conditions?

Who can forget the water crisis of Flint Michigan this past year? What started out as an attempt by officials of an impoverished city to find a cheaper source of water turned into one of the greatest public health crises in decades.

In spite of Flint’s overt oversight, a more insidious threat may be the crumbling infrastructure of our aging cities.  While Arizona may have just celebrated its centennial, many eastern cities are hundreds of years old. It’s hard to imagine Boston was founded in 1630 – almost 400 years ago!

Many aging cities are cash strapped and infrastructure repairs only occur during some kind of local crisis; broken water mains being an almost common occurrence. Circle of Blue Water News reported in a 2012 article entitled ‘America’s Water Infrastructure Shows its Age’ that “hundreds of billions of dollars are needed for renovation and improvement.”

Fortunately, the legislature may be finally listening. On September 19, 2016, the Senate passed the “Water Resources Development Act” which would authorize $10.6 billion to conduct feasibility studies for 30 large projects, provide money for sewer overflows and lead pipe removal (in Flint and other cities), create a water loan program called WIFIA, restore Lake Tahoe and the Great Lakes and other measures. The Bill still needs to pass the House which may have its own, less costly version. Re-negotiations are likely and the legislature will need to act quickly to enact this law since there are only a few weeks left before the election.

While the House and Senate have been hammering out Bills to combat infrastructure problems another, unforeseen dilemma occurred for many eastern towns and cities over this summer – drought!  Reports of widespread drought in northeastern and southeastern states were rampant. Especially hard hit areas included New England and Georgia.

Online news source WXShift (Weather Shift) recently reported “Three months ago, only 8 percent of the Northeast was in a moderate drought. That number has swelled to 39 percent in the most recent Drought Monitor, released on Thursday (September 22, 2016)”.  (See U.S. Drought Monitor at

To put that in perspective, Boston received only 38% of its typical rainfall from June through August; 3.92 inches. (By comparison, Sierra Vista logged 4.86 inches of rainfall from June 15 – July 15, according to University of Arizona CLIMAS Monsoon Summary data.) The situation has become so urgent that the Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton started to ramp up water conservation efforts, calling for the elimination of outdoor watering by residents and businesses around the state to avoid stressing drinking water reservoirs.

Similar concerns were reported by various local news agencies in Ohio, upstate New York, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey and others. Areas once accustomed to dependable water are being forced to consider alternative measures to keep water supplies flowing to customers. Is this just a foreshadowing of things to come? It depends upon who you talk to.

As scientists continue to accumulate data showing rising tides, record high heat, rapid melting of polar ice, and significant changes in precipitation patterns,  one has to wonder if the oft used slogan attributed to water in the West, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting for” may soon be relevant to the East.

-Sandra Hurlbut