Water for sale: can local farms sell from their wells? A Siskiyou judge will decide

Bill Choy Skye Kinkade
Siskiyou Daily News
Crops along Highway A-12 are irrigated with an agricultural sprinkler in August of 2020, as the fight for water in the Big Springs area began to heat up.

Siskiyou County Judge Joanne Bicego will issue a written ruling sometime in the coming weeks to decide whether Griset Farms, Inc. on County Road A-12 will face monetary penalties for selling water pumped from their agricultural well.

Siskiyou County District Attorney Kirk Andrus said his office filed a civil lawsuit against  Griset Farms, accusing its owners of selling groundwater to unlawful cannabis growers, which is in violation of an August 2020 emergency ordinance that banned the practice.

The suit alleges a violation of the county zoning ordinance by running a commercial water station in an ag-zoned area. The DA’s office also filed an unfair business practices lawsuit, alleging Griset Farms is taking commercial advantage of violating laws and flagrantly ignoring them. 

A second defendant, Ellison Ranch, "voluntarily stopped providing water to these illegal activities" after the lawsuit was filed, Andrus said.

More:Why protesters say a new ordinance unfairly impacts Asian Americans in Siskiyou County

“We are seeking civil penalties and injunctive relief,” said Andrus of the case, which was originally filed in November of last year. “Of the two defendant ranches, Griset has flagrantly ignored the ordinances passed by Board of Supervisors." 

Thursday's hearing was over a second defense demur, Andrus explained, objecting to the Board of Supervisors’ authority to pass the groundwater ordinance amendments.

More:To curtail illegal cannabis grows, water trucks aren't allowed on these Siskiyou roads

Even after the Board of Supervisors passed the more stringent ordinance amendments last Tuesday, which made driving water trucks on certain county roads a misdemeanor, “there was still obvious illegal marijuana water activity at the Griset Ranch well.” 

In September of 2020, after the supervisors passed the ordinance that banned the pumping of water for illegal purposes, private investigator Ed Szendrey said is "a common practice" for farmers in the area to turn on their pumps in the spring and turn them off in the fall. 

Szendrey, whose private investigation business is based in Chico, collected information for the Grisets.

"They tell me because of the power needed to start the pumps it costs less for electricity to have them run continuously than to start and stop," Szendrey said in an email at the time. "The same amount of water is pumped no matter to what use it is applied. That is the case with the Griset and Ellison farms. The water sold reduces the amount of water used for irrigation. There is no more, nor any less water used when water is sold. ... The measurement of Griset’s water use reflects this dual usage."

"Cutting off the water to the subdivision would cause a humanitarian crisis. Nearly 2,000 people are living in the subdivision and depend on the water for personal survival," Szendrey said.

Szendrey said the legal issues "are not the growing of marijuana but the rights of farmers throughout the state to the water in their wells, and the rights of those living in the Mt. Shasta Vista Subdivision to the water in question," Szendrey said. "The Grisets ... appear to be specifically targeted by the county requiring them to police the end use of the water they sell. The county does not appear to be placing the some 26 water district in the county in that position."

Those hauling water to the subdivision complain they have been singled out by the county unfairly," Szendrey said. "The county does not target the dirt haulers, the building suppliers, hardware, or hydroponic businesses."

A frenzy outside

While the hearing was taking place, there was a lot of activity outside the courtroom.

What was supposed to be a demonstration of Big Springs area residents who are opposed to trucking water from the aquifer for cannabis cultivation turned into a protest of hundreds of growers – the majority of whom were of Asian descent – who advocated for their right to water. Many asserted that the county’s latest ordinance unfairly impacts Asian Americans living and farming in Siskiyou County.