The Shasta Valley, nestled between two mountain ranges in Northern California’s Siskiyou County, is as intricate as it is beautiful.
Nearly four years after initially visiting the area, hydrogeologist Brad Gooch is still awestruck by the scenery.
It’s not because of Mount Shasta, a 14,000-foot volcano that towers over forest and farming.
Gooch, on the other hand, is perplexed by how little is known about the valley’s natural riches.
“To be honest, it perplexes me,” he admits.
The lack of information is arguably most obvious when it comes to what geologists refer to as groundwater basin hydrogeology, or how water travels through volcanic rock underneath the ground.
Cattle ranchers, alfalfa producers, cannabis growers, and others all rely on the water flowing through the valley. Thousands of people rely on groundwater to keep their homes running.
Gooch and a team of other hydrogeologists from the University of California, Davis, were engaged to help fulfill the criteria of California’s groundbreaking Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which Governor Jerry Brown signed into law in 2014.
The scientists’ mission was to create a three-dimensional model of the county’s groundwater basin to forecast changes in water levels and quality.
The model would also help to shape the local Groundwater Sustainability Plan, which is required under SGMA and is due to the state’s Department of Water Resources by January 2022.
According to Gooch, “California has become the Wild West of groundwater.” “Drill it and pump it; the choice is yours. Take a chance. That is why the SGMA was so crucial and long overdue.”
The Western United States is currently experiencing an era-defining megadrought, and in dry years, groundwater basins meet over half of California’s water needs, filling the void left by reservoirs and other surface water sources that have reached record low levels.
Since 1999, the frequency of dry years has been “astonishing,” according to Thomas Harter, a hydrologist at the University of California, Davis, who has worked in Siskiyou County for two decades.
The problem isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Experts predict that as the temperature warms, the region’s precipitation patterns will fundamentally change.
Drought will certainly last longer in the Shasta Valley, while snowpack in the surrounding mountains will likely diminish.
More intense disputes over Shasta Valley’s water have erupted this year, frequently pitting white neighbors against the thousands of Hmong American families who have relocated in a collection of densely packed lots in the valley’s arid eastern section since the mid-2010s.
These Hmong American families came to Siskiyou County from all around California and the United States as members of a Southeast Asian ethnic minority that relocated to the United States in the decades following the Vietnam War.
Many of them now make a living by cultivating cannabis in greenhouses and importing groundwater from adjacent farmers.
Even though recreational cannabis usage became legal in California in 2016, Siskiyou County has passed a series of regulations prohibiting cannabis farms and the activities that support them.
Regardless, the cannabis greenhouses have spread, both among the Hmong American population and other newcomers.
Last year, the county filed two lawsuits on behalf of a group of mostly white residents whose wells had run dry, alleging that a few farmers selling water to the subdivision’s cannabis growers are “depleting precious groundwater resources” and jeopardizing thousands of other residents’ lawful use of water.
No one, including hydrogeologists, understands exactly how much water is utilized.
However, activists for Hmong families, who now make up the majority of Mount Shasta Vista residents, claim the allegations are the result of a long history of racial tension and prejudice.
The purpose of the litigation, according to the advocates, was not to address the tremendous growth of illegal cannabis but to drive the community—which includes many people who do not cultivate commercial cannabis and others who do not grow it at all—to leave.
The Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors banned trucks carrying more than 100 gallons of water from certain county roads surrounding the Mount Shasta Vista subdivision in May of this year, effectively cutting off not only the greenhouses, but also many of the Hmong families who rely on the trucks to survive, raise animals, and grow vegetables on the arid land.
Protests and boycotts have been organized by the Hmong American community and their allies. Lawyers for members of the Hmong community filed a complaint against the county in June, alleging racial discrimination.
Scientific evidence that the cannabis farmers are genuinely depleting the wells is, however, missing from the raging debate.
Given that California has a multibillion-dollar underground marijuana market that is currently larger than the legal one, it’s a problem that extends beyond county lines.
However, the county faces a unique issue in determining the possible risks of cannabis cultivation in the Mount Shasta Valley subdivision: no one, not even the hydrogeologists, knows how much water is being utilized.
It’s not easy to create a model of the Shasta Valley water basin.
The jigsaw puzzle of volcanic rock that forms up a third of the valley and lies just beneath the region’s wells and cannabis crops is the invisible landscape Gooch and his colleagues explore.
Fractures and long lava tubes travel through a younger basalt layer, producing a “superhighway” for groundwater, according to Gooch.
Laura Foglia, a senior engineer with Larry Walker Associates and an adjunct professor at the University of California, Davis, who is leading the technical team advising the Shasta Valley committee, says, “It’s some of the most intricate geology that we have in California.”
“Predicting the source of water and where it will go is difficult. It’s because there are so many aspects of geology that we don’t understand and will never understand.”
Miles of impervious hard rock juts up from underneath, further complicating issues.
The rolling hills of the valley are relics from 300,000 years ago when Mount Shasta’s entire north slope crumbled and flowed westward.
“It throws a major wrench into the whole valley, in a valley that already has a lot of wrenches,” Gooch adds.
“Essentially, it has created a slew of microcosms of hydrology that are nearly impossible to grasp. And, without a doubt, considerably less to model.”
Despite the challenges, the team was able to create a workable model of the valley in the spring by combining half a century of good records from local drillers, mid-century geology study, and surface water maps.
The data being input into the model is patchy, even though the model is highly advanced.
It will take decades of more observation, according to the experts, to yield anything other than generalizations.
Although the model is still in its early stages, it can give an approximate estimate of the basin’s water budget and, in theory, simulate various real-world events such as drought, pollution, or groundwater depletion.
The collection of public well-monitoring data, water flow levels from adjacent rivers, and annual weather data such as rainfall are crunched by a computer.
The model also uses satellite data to track land-use changes, such as evaporation from crops and changes in soil moisture, and to assess elevation changes, allowing the researchers to see if the earth is sinking due to groundwater depletion.
It’s all connected by the team’s three-dimensional geological map.
It also arrives on time. The first iteration of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan for the valley has a November deadline set by SGMA; after review, it will go into force next year.
The plan is expected to handle a variety of water needs as well as several environmental concerns, such as streamflow and salmon habitat.
Cannabis, on the other hand, has taken center stage in the valley. Amid the debate over groundwater pumping, Foglia and her colleagues are attempting to retain a straight-forward attitude while working toward a more comprehensive plan.
“We need good quality data to nail down what the implications are and where they are,” she adds. “We don’t want to make it up because we don’t have the data.” “The model can assist you, but it is only as good as the data you provide.”
For cannabis, there are few data points. According to Foglia, state officials only check a small number of wells in the area twice a year, making variance due to whatever cause difficult to trace.
Any additional pumping would undoubtedly affect groundwater levels, but details on how much and by whom are unknown.
“We would need at least monthly data on some of the groundwater levels to adequately evaluate the impact of the pumping,” she adds. “If we know, we know; if we don’t know, we’re upfront and say we can’t say this is the cause 100 percent of the time.”
Siskiyou County is no stranger to illegal cannabis production. According to Margiana Petersen-Rockney, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, who conducted an ethnographic study on cannabis producers in the county in 2019, the plant has been produced in the area since at least the late 1960s.
“For many, many decades, there have been white males growing weed up in the hills, and nobody blinked an eye,” she continues.
While cannabis is not new to the area, ranching and hay cultivation have long dominated the region’s agriculture, which includes farms dating back over a century.
According to some estimates, cannabis cultivators now outnumber non-cannabis farmers and ranchers by at least two to one. According to the county sheriff’s office, there are now 5,000 to 6,000 greenhouses in operation just in the parched eastern half of the valley.
According to Petersen-Rockney, the observable changes are challenging the area’s conventional way of agriculture and historical views about farming for certain locals.
She argues that the shifts pose a danger to a static, nostalgic vision of rural identity, leading to an unwillingness to recognize cannabis production as agriculture or its Hmong American cultivators as legitimate farmers and lawful citizens.
“There is a real fear that if this group votes as a unit, they would bring political change to the county,” she says.
Tensions over the cannabis farms, according to the county board of supervisors and the sheriff’s office, are about the legality of the crop and the environmental damage caused by the illegal and uncontrolled industry, not racial animus.
However, in June, tensions between local law enforcement and the Hmong community worsened further after a Hmong father of three was shot and killed by officers during the evacuation of Mount Shasta Vista due to the Lava Fire that was raging in the area.
California approved recreational cannabis in 2016, but counties and other local governments were left to create their restrictions.
Siskiyou County passed a set of restrictions covering unincorporated areas like Mount Shasta Vista in response to the influx of new growers, including a ban on growing more than a few cannabis plants outdoors and increased penalties and enforcement for code violations like growing unlocked, visible cannabis.
Fines and property seizures were among the consequences. Hmong American farmers were in nearly “universal non-compliance” with the laws because of the unreasonably expensive bar, according to Petersen-Rockney, and the county banned commercial cannabis operations in unincorporated areas permanently in 2019.
The sheriff’s office was in charge of dealing with the majority of the offenses, which resulted in a slew of law enforcement actions and crop seizures.
More recently, the county has attempted to limit the use of groundwater by cannabis plantations.
The County declared a state of emergency in January 2020, claiming that cannabis producers were using “3 million gallons of water per day” on their crops, an estimate the sheriff’s office later revised to 9.6 million gallons per day.
Last August, officials outlawed groundwater extraction for cannabis irrigation, prohibiting the few wells that largely supply the fields from supplying water to the cannabis farms, and a few months later, water trucks were restricted from specific county routes.
These more recent bans are now included in a draught of the valley’s Groundwater Sustainability Plan, which was made public earlier this month for public comment.
As a result, Peter Thao, a community advocate who moved to the region in 2016, sees the Hmong American community’s access to water as being threatened.
Even though groundwater is officially nonpotable, many people utilize it regularly for things like bathing and watering livestock and vegetable gardens. According to a recent lawsuit, several people used it to get drunk.
“They don’t want to police the law, but they want to turn off the water,” he adds of the cannabis rules.
“We’re just going to die slowly out here because we don’t have water––and if it costs a life out here because someone died of dehydration, who is going to be held responsible?”
Despite lingering doubts, the technical team presented their model to the advisory group at a three-hour Zoom discussion in late April. As they prepared the presentation after a lengthy debate, Foglia remarked, “Don’t be surprised.” “Perhaps this is the time for everyone to wake up.”
Cab Esposito, a groundwater hydrologist with Larry Walker Associates in charge of the modeling, displayed photographs from the first public cannabis growing simulation—not the greenhouses from the Mount Shasta Vista subdivision specifically, but a hypothetical scenario.
Esposito portrayed a pessimistic image of the future. Three estimates of increased groundwater pumping from a randomized set of fake wells were layered on historical water-use data to create the simulation.
Each scenario revealed that cannabis drained groundwater to varying degrees. This appeared to legitimize the county’s cannabis-related prohibitions and legal claims.
The scientists, on the other hand, had not provided the water-use statistics for the hypothetical cannabis cultivation.
During the presentation, Esposito remarked, “These are ballpark numbers that we’ve been working on developing based on information from the sheriff’s department.”
The figures are based on a two-million-strong estimate of total plants in the area, according to the sheriff’s office. “To try and estimate how much additional water is being consumed inside that area,” Esposito explained.
Data on illicit plants, however, is notoriously difficult to quantify, according to Ethan Brown, a geologist with the Shasta Valley Resource Conservation District, and other experts agree.
The lack of cannabis data in Shasta Valley is particularly concerning, according to Brown, who adds that “the fact that it’s not controlled doesn’t help” because “there’s simply really not a decent number for how many total plants.”
Another unknown is how much water producers use per plant, as the exact amount varies depending on the environment, plant size, and whether the product is produced indoors or outdoors.
Some people hoped to use the partial water concept to assist combat the spread of illegal marijuana.
Aside from the disputed estimations, there was another issue with the simulation: Scientists typically model agricultural water usage by estimating how much water evaporates from plants and soil and eventually returns to the groundwater basin.
However, the model scenario envisioned a dramatic, and implausible, scenario in which cannabis-growing water was completely removed from the groundwater basin.
The scientists’ simulation was designed to show, but not necessarily forecast, what would happen to groundwater levels if that much water was finally taken from the aquifer, according to them.
A true-to-life estimate would necessitate a great deal more data. “We compute how much water is returning into the groundwater through recharge for routine agricultural uses,” Foglia explains.
Because we don’t know much about these applications and whether they return to the groundwater or not, this needs to be treated as a distinct case.”
The scientists claim that there is no agreement on the final amount. In an email to Undark, Foglia stated, “What we have for cannabis are merely estimates.”
However, other attendees at the meeting sought to employ the partial water concept to help curb the spread of illegal cannabis.
Blair Hart, a rancher and member of the Shasta Valley Groundwater Advisory Committee, said, “The county is beyond belief irritated at the legal process of attempting to shut this down.”
“The bureaucratic web they must navigate to prosecute a single case is incredible. We’ve got a shambles.”
Steve Griset, an alfalfa farmer in Siskiyou County, sees the Hmong cannabis growers and their families differently than some other valley residents—as a close-knit community seeking a livelihood and a place to call home, rather than as criminals causing water scarcity.
“Thousands and thousands of people have moved in right in my backyard,” he claims. “I was taken aback by it. Before I moved up here, I had never spoken to a Hmong person.”
In 2016, Griset, like many of his neighbors, spotted a business opportunity and began selling extra water from his irrigating schedule to the developing town. “The water, in my opinion,” Griset continues, “is going from farm to agriculture.”
However, in the summer of 2020, the county filed a lawsuit against Griset, alleging that the water he was selling was going to be an illegal crop.
According to the legal case, he used “wasteful” and “unreasonable” amounts of water, and his business may be causing other residents’ wells to run dry.
It’s difficult to show a direct link between cannabis use and groundwater depletion, but Gooch says the case is a good example of why focusing on science is so important.
Gooch recently moved to a new position with the State Water Resources Control Board and is no longer working on the Shasta Valley modeling.
He continues, “We don’t know where these dry wells are, we simply have rough assumptions.” “It’s just guesswork and gossip because no one brought up any information to assess from a scientific standpoint. And we’re afraid we won’t be able to do anything about it.”
The Hmong American community was left without a main source of water and scrambling to organize against the prohibition after the county banned unpermitted groundwater transportation on certain county roads and prohibited groundwater use for cannabis, and farmers like Griset stopped selling to water trucks.
Community leaders have described the ban as a violation of human rights and a public health crisis.
The sheriff’s department has recently enacted the ordinance by impounding some water trucks and requesting community members with heavy machinery to assist in the removal of illicit cannabis crops.
It’s an age-old conflict, according to Petersen-Rockney.
For a long time, she continues, “water shortage has set agribusiness and Indigenous community livelihoods against each other.” “Now, I believe a similar process is at work, in which racialized othering is intensifying conflict.”
The absence of accurate data on water use in cannabis fields in the Shasta Valley isn’t helping matters.
There is no immediate fear of overdrawing water from the basin, according to the technical team, and an initial draught of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan, assuming no rapid increase of other groundwater users, which would include the cannabis farms.
The Groundwater Sustainability Agency intends to increase data collection to better understand how existing growers use groundwater. The technical staff is unsure how they will accomplish this.
In an email, Foglia stated, “We have ideas, but we are not sure what will be viable when it comes to cannabis.” “We’ll have to think outside the box to gather the information we need.”
However, many in the Hmong American community are calling for the rules to be repealed immediately, so it’s unclear whether the water restrictions will remain in place.
“The treatment we are experiencing here in this county will be heard on a local, state, and federal level,” Thao told a crowd of protesters outside the county courthouse in May, where Griset’s case was being heard.
The federal judge overseeing the discrimination case brought on behalf of the Hmong community earlier this month ordered the two sides to enter mediation to ensure that the Mount Shasta Vista subdivision had enough water access while the court considered the larger problems.
The improved groundwater-monitoring network may eventually provide some clarity when it comes to determining the risk of cannabis to the basin.
But, as the scientists point out, it will take time, noting that the management plan would be reviewed every five years until 2042.
“There isn’t much we can do other than build the best model we can and trust that the individuals making future judgments are making the best-informed decisions,” Gooch adds.
“Everyone wishes to make the best decision possible. However, it all begins with the data.”