Let's begin with some Q&A. In the 1990s, runaway cultivation of a mind-altering cash crop led to a spate of illegal surface water diversions from the streams and springs that feed the Russian River, as well as directly from the river itself. The Russian was home to more illegal diversions as of the late-Aughts than any other river in California.
Can you name this cash crop?
We'll try another. In 2008, only two wild coho salmon returned to the Russian River. Both were stranded on the banks of the low-flowing river (i.e., both of them died) after simultaneous pumping of water by growers of the mind-altering cash crop in question siphoned a majority of the river's flow overnight. What cash crop am I referring to?
One more should do it. A major reason so few wild salmonids return to this river is that growers of this crop have dried up countless creeks and streams, or else choked them off and filled in their spawning pools with monumental amounts of sediment (50,000 cubic yards in the case of one reckless grower out on Skagg Springs Road in the late-'90s). They have, moreover, poisoned what water remains with a full menu of chemical fertilizers, soil fumigants, growth hormones, herbicides, defoliants, fungicides, pesticides, and other systemic poisons used to ensure the bounty and sterility of their crops.
Do you have it now?
Of course, I'm talking about wine-grapes.
In the last two weeks, the State Assembly and State Senate have passed three drought-related bills to regulate the watershed and ecosystemic damage wrought by pot grows. These include the Medical Marijuana Public Safety and Environmental Protection Act authored by local state senator Mike McGuire and the Marijuana Watershed Protection Act authored by his assembly counterpart Jim Wood.
The destructive impacts of marijuana cultivation are indeed serious. Marijuana grows are cumulatively withdrawing an enormous amount of water that would otherwise flow through streams and nurture wildlife. The mainstem Eel River and south fork Eel River are among many California rivers currently experiencing their lowest flows ever recorded, according to data made available by the Nature Conservancy, and marijuana cultivation is a huge factor in that reduction. Moreover, dope growing often makes it unsafe to go out into the forest. And dope-growing chemical runoff and silt harm the salmon, while rodenticides poison the rare Humboldt marten and weasel-like fishers.
But the level of cognitive dissonance (roughly translated: the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values) attending the public concern that everyone from liberal elected officials to conservationists are expressing about the environmental impacts of pot growing has long since reached absurd proportions. I call it “Pot Bad, Wine Good Thinking.”
One way of deconstructing such thinking is by examining the cumulative impacts of each industry. Little Lake Valley's drainage, Outlet Creek, is one of the “marijuana watersheds” most carefully studied regarding impacts of marijuana cultivation. California Department of Fish and Wildlife researchers estimate the watershed was home to 32,000 marijuana plants requiring about 191,000 gallons per day of water in 2012.
One of the only watersheds where a somewhat thorough study of the impact of wine-grape cultivation has occurred is Maacama Creek, one of the Russian River's five largest tributaries and the primary drainage of the Alexander Valley in northern Sonoma County. As a conservative estimate, 15,000 acres of vineyards are planted in Alexander Valley. Say there are 2,000 vines per acre, say each vine uses 150 gallons of water a year, and say the growing season is 150 days (all fairly conservative estimates). That's 30 million gallons a day in Alexander Valley alone — 157.1 times more than pot growers use in the Outlet Creek watershed, according to the Fish and Wildlife study.
According to a 2006 University of California study, frost protection of wine-grapes reduced the Maacama Creek's flow as much as 97% overnight in 2004-05. In all, wine-grape cultivation caused a so-called “dry-season acceleration” of four weeks, meaning that “depressed flows in late April more closely resembled those that occurred in late May.”
A more important aspect of the cognitive dissonance has to do with the level of power the wine industry wields. California's wine industry is well known for its influence within the corridors of the state Capitol. As lobbying and campaign donation records reveal, wineries and their political action committees spend enormous sums of money to press for favorable laws regarding zoning, labor, alcohol sales, and subsidies, and to block tighter regulations on water use. The industry also lobbies for the expansion of water supplies through construction of new dams and reservoirs, including those that would bolster the governor's Delta tunnels project.
Sure, marijuana growers have a few friends in high places in certain areas, but they wield very little legislative power by comparison. And that's a big part of why they make such a convenient scapegoat.
In the final analysis, it's mainly a class issue. Wine styles itself as a glamorous industry that reinforces ruling class solidarity. To appreciate fine wine is to signify membership in a learned, privileged order. Smoking reefer? Unglamorous at best, criminal at worst. “Wine good. Pot bad.”
Of course, the impacts vary by location. In the Eel River and Klamath River watersheds, for example, marijuana growers collectively cause huge harm. The backlash against pot cultivation in those neighborhoods is also understandable in that the industry really does foster violence and thuggery in all too many cases.
Something entirely irrational is happening here, though. I have now attended three Ukiah screenings of the acclaimed new documentary “The Russian River: All Rivers,” which presents a thorough “boom to bust” overview of the history of human and industrial abuse of the watershed. Quite sensibly, the film examines the enormous ecosystemic impacts of wine-grape cultivation in the Russian River. Certainly, the industry's destructive impact in the Russian River has been overwhelmingly greater than that of the cannabis industry. There is absolutely no comparison. Yet, at each screening, liberal conservationists have complained in bitter tones that the film scapegoats winegrape growers and lets marijuana growers off the hook.
(Contact Will Parrish at firstname.lastname@example.org.)