Nevada County’s law enforcement and environmental health officials usually are the only ones to see first-hand the devastation wrought by Mexican cartels that grow marijuana in remote, rugged areas that are rarely visited by the public.
A recent raid on such a grow on private land near Bowman Lake was a near-perfect example of the undesirable impacts such operations can have on the county’s vital watersheds.
The Nevada County Sheriff’s Narcotics Task Force raided the grow Aug. 5. The 7 a.m. raid netted approximately 3,000 plants — but the growers who had been onsite had fled, leaving behind a campsite littered with debris and substantial environmental degradation to the land and a creek that runs through the area.
The grow off Hoosier Road, below Bowman on the north side of the Bowman-Spaulding conduit, was on very steep terrain with thick undergrowth and had been terraced with drip irrigation running to every plant.
The plants were being watered by a gravity-fed system that involved two reservoirs diverting water from a stream and that had fertilizer dumped into them.
The Bowman-Spaulding canal is the major source of water for the county. NID water flows through the canal, via Fuller Lake, to Lake Spaulding.
It is then routed down either the South Yuba Canal to Upper Deer Creek, Scotts Flat and the Nevada City-Grass Valley area or down the PG&E Drum System along the Bear River, where the water is used to generate power for NID and PG&E before supplying NID customers in southern Nevada County and Placer County.
Sheriff’s deputies returned to the site a week later with the property’s owner and two county environmental health specialists so they could assess the damage and the amount of clean-up necessary.
“We’re looking for physical hazards, bio-hazards, environmental hazards,” explained specialist Grant Eisen. “Growers will bring in a lot of fertilizers; a lot of it is not legal in the U.S. because it’s so nasty, and they throw it around willy-nilly.”
Eisen and fellow specialist Dave Slaughter scoured the site for evidence of fertilizers, insecticides and poisons, sifting through bags of garbage and testing the water that had been diverted to the hand-dug cisterns.
Eisen and Slaughter found at least four bags of fertilizer next to the water reservoir and a number of empty bags below them.
“It looks like they were getting ready for budding time,” Slaughter said after evaluating the type of fertilizer they found.
“Oh, here we go — that’s not good,” Eisen said, seeing a bag of insecticide.
“We usually don’t see pesticides at this elevation.”
One of the biggest issues, said Eisen, is the solid waste. Mounds of garbage were strewn in various spots — but the worst by far was the campsite, which appeared to have been ravaged by bears.
The site was a mess, littered with sleeping bags and foodstuffs, including dried beans, empty tuna cans, beer cans and tequila bottles.
Slaughter also pointed to the empty creekbed, where irrigation lines snaked away to feed the reservoirs.
“That’s a major environmental issue,” he said.
The environmental health specialists estimated the growers had been at the site for about three seasons, using about four or five people to get it going.
“It’s a lot of work,” Slaughter said, pointing to the terracing, the water reservoirs and the irrigation system. “It would be impossible to do all this in a year.”
Sheriff’s Sgt. Guy Selleck, the head of the Narcotics Task Force, called the operation a smaller grow.
“You can see how much work they go to,” he said, adding that the task force found some much more substantial operations last year, including one 14,000-plant grow.
“They’ve probably been out here at least since April, maybe earlier,” Selleck said.
“If the weather holds, (growers) will go through October, but usually September.”
Property owner Dan Whooley said his family has owned the two 80-acre parcels for about 30 years and camps there occasionally.
The family was just finishing up one of those trips, still in its sleeping bags, the Monday the helicopters came swooping down.
“I had no clue,” Whooley said. “I guess all I can do is keep my eyes open (in the future) … My concern, obviously, is for my family’s safety.”
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.