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Dry wells, angry neighbors: Big Springs residents protest water trucking for illegal marijuana grows

Skye Kinkade
Siskiyou Daily News
A water truck makes its way between lines of protesters on A-12 Saturday morning, where neighbors picketed against the pumping of local water, most likely to be used to irrigate illegal marijuana grows in Siskiyou County.

More than 100 people gathered in front of the Mayten Fire Department in Montague Saturday morning to protest the trucking of water from local wells, most likely to irrigate illegal cannabis grows in the Big Springs and Mt. Shasta Vista areas.

More than a dozen wells in the area have recently gone dry and residents blame much of it on the pumping.

The Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 5 approved an urgency ordinance making it a public nuisance to pump water solely to irrigate illegal marijuana grows. However, neighbors say the trucks just keep coming.

During Saturday’s protest, several trucks made their way down Highway A-12 between lines of protesters holding signs with slogans including “Water 4 Life not Profit” and “Save our Wells!” Protesters encouraged one another not to heckle passersby and to keep the gathering peaceful.

Protesters in Montague on Aug. 22, 2020.

Siskiyou County District Attorney Kirk Andrus said the new ordinance is enforceable by a citation of $5,000 per violation. However, enforcement “takes time,” said District 4 Supervisor Lisa Nixon, who was at the protest and previously called the use of such vast amounts of water for illegal activity at the expense of Siskiyou County residents “a travesty.”

Raymone Russell, who has lived in Big Springs since 1997, said he used to pump cold, fresh water from his well’s two inch main. He’s now using a 3/4 inch water hose and it’s pumping with air.

Protesters in Montague on Aug. 22, 2020.

“We all depend on one aquifer here (in Big Springs). Until it happens at your home – until you turn on your sink, get in your shower and there’s no water – you won’t understand,” he said.

The problem is two fold, explained Robert Cameron, who has lived in Big Springs for 20 years. California is in a drought, and many of the wells in the Big Springs area depend on water carried from glaciers on the slopes of Mt. Shasta to the area through lava tubes.

Protesters come together in Montague on Aug. 22, 2020.

The water table in Big Springs is close to the surface in the late spring, Cameron said, but in times of drought, it drops. He believes the water trucks, which have the potential to pump thousands of gallons per day from the local aquifer, are contributing to failing wells.

Supervisor Lisa Nixon talks with a Big Springs resident during a protest in Montague on Aug. 22, 2020.

“The growers have taken over, and some greedy people have a willingness to sell their water,” said Cameron. The origination of the water trucks and who pays for them “is a mystery right now,” he said.

Cameron recently paid $3,000 to have his pump lowered and to update the electrical components of his well. The other option is to install an outside tank between the well and his house, which he could fill when the water table is high.

“I don’t want to do that,” he said.

Protestors in Montague on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020.

Cameron looks forward to enforcement of the ordinance, which appears to “have teeth.”

“I know the Sheriff’s Department is doing its best, but they’re overwhelmed ... Someone needs to step in and put a stop to this,” said Cameron, who emphasized that his beef isn’t with people who have small grows or those who plant a couple of marijuana plants in their backyard. Nor is it about multinational water companies, which use water that’s been  properly adjudicated. 

“This is about illegal, organized criminal grows that are taking money out of Siskiyou County and the greedy people selling them water,” he said. “You can pass all the ordinances you want, but it won’t matter unless someone gets serious about enforcing it.” 

Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey has long asserted that there’s a problem with illegal marijuana grows in the county. So far in 2020, the Sheriff’s Office, with help from other local and regional agencies, have seized more than 18,000 marijuana plants and more than 3,000 pounds of processed marijuana from illegal grows in Siskiyou County.

Outdoor cultivation of marijuana is illegal in Siskiyou. According to the county’s ordinance, growers are limited to 12 plants inside an approved structure for medical marijuana. Recreational growers are limited to six plants.

While the county’s urgency ordinance notes that three million gallons of water may be being used in Siskiyou County each day for illegal cannabis grows, Lopey said he believes the amount is much higher – somewhere around 9.6 million gallons.

After Saturday’s gathering in front of the fire department, people got in their vehicles and drove down the road to one of the wells where they believe much of the illegal pumping activity takes place. The line of cars snarled traffic on the usually wide open road and was accompanied by sheriff’s personnel and officers with the California Highway Patrol.

Andrus said once someone is cited for trucking water for use at an illegal grow site, they have the right to an administrative appeal hearing before a hearing officer. Attorneys from the County Counsel’s office appear at those hearings, he said.

Generally a wide open road, A-12 was snarled with people protesting the pumping of water by trucks to irrigate illegal marijuana grows on Aug. 22, 2020. Wildfire smoke obscured Mt. Shasta but didn't stop protesters from making their voices heard.

However, the ordinance “does not allow government employees to enter private property and turn off water, and it makes violation of the ordinance a misdemeanor at most,” he said.

“The ordinance is a useful tool but is not a complete answer,” said Andrus. “A more complete answer will come when the county has a comprehensive groundwater ordinance.  For now though, people who are suffering injury because of these people reducing the water table by sucking the underground basins dry, we would like to get information about that.”

He encouraged those who have first hand information about these problems to contact his office by emailing da@siskiyouda.org.

Skye Kinkade is the editor of the Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers and the Siskiyou Daily News. She is a fourth generation Siskiyou County resident and has lived in Mount Shasta and Weed her entire life. She is committed to telling stories that are important to Siskiyou County residents. In 2018, Skye was named Editor of the Year in the Best of Gatehouse contest and has been part of a team of journalists that have received recognition from the California News Publishers Association's California Journalism Awards.