Siskiyou water ordinances: Have they helped curtail illegal marijuana grows? Sheriff says yes

Bill Choy
Siskiyou Daily News
Protestors occupied a block of Fourth Street in front of the Siskiyou County Courthouse on Thursday morning, May 6, 2021. Protestors included residents who oppose the trucking of water from agricultural wells to irrigate illegal marijuana grows, and those residents who utilize the water. Inside the courthouse, a demurrer on a civil case against a Big Springs area rancher who’s been accused of selling water for cannabis irrigation – which is against a 2020 Siskiyou County ordinance – was being heard.

Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue believes that two ordinances enacted by the board of supervisors in May have helped curtail some of the illegal marijuana cultivation that's happening in the Big Springs and Dorris areas.

Supervisors on Tuesday approved a second reading of the ordinances despite pleas from the Siskiyou County Hmong community, who say they unfairly affects them.

Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue speaks about the problems associated with illegal marijuana cultivation at during a meet-and-greet event in Mount Shasta in June of 2021.

LaRue said 25 misdemeanor cases have been taken as a result of the urgency ordinance that bans water trucks carrying 100 gallons or more on certain Siskiyou County roads where illegal marijuana cultivation is rampant. 

"When we pull over a truck in the zone, we seize it as evidence," LaRue said. "We take it off the road. And this has been effective."

People protest the presence of water trucks in the Montague area on Highway A-12 in August, 2020. Trucks such as this one are no longer allowed to travel on this road per a Siskiyou County ordinance aimed at curtailing illegal marijuana grows in the area.

The second ordinance makes it necessary for people to get an administrative permit to use groundwater somewhere other than the parcel from which it was extracted.

Eric Alan Berg, a Redding-based lawyer representing the Spencer Ranch, told the supervisors on Tuesday that the ordinances are “damning local ranchers” and the Hmong community. Berg said not having water trucks on the road led to more damage from the Lava Fire, which swept through the Mt. Shasta Vista subdivision on June 28.

Berg said the Lava Fire turned homes in the subdivision “into smoldering ash” and the county's restrictions prevented people from fighting the fire.

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“I think the county should not force neighbors to turn away neighbors, especially in a time of need,” he said.

A handful of people called into the meeting to support the ordinances, which they believe are protecting the community from illegal grows and the environmental damage and crime that comes with them. All of those who spoke wished to remain anonymous due to fear of repercussions, they said. 

A group of Hmong and their supporters protested in front of the old county courthouse building where the meeting was held, shouting things like, “What do we need? Water!"

Some who spoke on behalf of the Hmong community told the board that something needs to be done to address the loss of property and life due to the Lava Fire. They referred to an incident on June 28 when a yet-unidentified Hmong man was shot and killed by officers after he allegedly pointed a gun at them and fired off rounds while trying to get inside an evacuation zone.

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Berg said the man’s wife and three children witnessed the shooting.

He said water trucks are the first defense against fire, and many were blocked from transporting water to the blaze. Berg said residents had to drive up to 25 miles just to get a gallon or two of water despite the abundant water supply in the aquifers under their homes.  

LaRue said last year, 36 wells in the Big Springs area were reported to have gone dry. This year, he said, there have been no such reports. Although he doesn't have the scientific evidence to back it up, he wonders if there is any connection between the ordinances and healthier wells.

LaRue said there are more than 5,000 greenhouses in Siskiyou County and each houses between 300 and 1,000 marijuana plants that are "thirsty as all get out." Each plant, he noted, uses three to six gallons of water each day.

"We just can't keep up with that," LaRue said. "There is an urgency to do all we can to curtail illegal cannabis."