Marijuana (Cannabis sativa L.) cultivation has proliferated in northwestern California since at least the mid-1990s. The environmental impacts associated with marijuana cultivation appear substantial, yet have been difficult to quantify, in part because cultivation is clandestine and often occurs on private property.
To evaluate the impacts of water diversions at a watershed scale, we interpreted high-resolution aerial imagery to estimate the number of marijuana plants being cultivated in four watersheds in northwestern California, USA. Low-altitude aircraft flights and search warrants executed with law enforcement at cultivation sites in the region helped to validate assumptions used in aerial imagery interpretation.
We estimated the water demand of marijuana irrigation and the potential effects water diversions could have on stream flow in the study watersheds. Our results indicate that water demand for marijuana cultivation has the potential to divert substantial portions of streamflow in the study watersheds, with an estimated flow reduction of up to 23% of the annual seven-day low flow in the least impacted of the study watersheds.
Estimates from the other study watersheds indicate that water demand for marijuana cultivation exceeds streamflow during the low-flow period. In the most impacted study watersheds, diminished streamflow is likely to have lethal or sub-lethal effects on state-and federally-listed salmon and steelhead trout and to cause further decline of sensitive amphibian species.