Law enforcement officers find thousands of cannabis plants, environmental damage in foothills | TheUnion.com

Law enforcement officers find thousands of cannabis plants, environmental damage in foothills

Rachel Rosenbaum
Marysville Appeal-Democrat

About 30 minutes off a main road, perched atop a Yuba County hill, sits a tall, narrow white house with Romanesque columns.

But the county has no record of the home because growers at the site were truly off the grid, cultivating between 2,000 and 3,000 marijuana plants. They were sheltering in bunkers along the 150-acre parcel.

The home is dilapidated — the entire bottom floor devoted to cultivating — and trash is strewn all over the property. A shoddy solar panel sits in front of one of the greenhouses on the property. Two long PVC pipes snake through the dirt, diverting water from a nearby creek into the greenhouses. Empty bags of soil are piled up behind a shed. Canisters of petroleum were spilled into the creek.

The home on Robinson Mill Road was one of eight grow sites targeted by a multi-agency bust Friday that netted thousands of plants and multiple arrests. It was led by the Yuba County Sheriff's Office and included agents from the National Guard, California Water Board, Calaveras County Sheriff's Office, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Yuba County Sheriff's Office had aided in a Calaveras County bust earlier this week, netting nearly 27,000 plants.

Lt. Wendell Anderson (recently elected to replace the retiring Sheriff Steve Durfor) said the operation showed the effects illegal marijuana grows have on the environment. Each plant can use up to eight gallons of water per day, he said, and some grows up and down the state use chemicals like illegal rodenticides that kill not only rats but the animals that eat them.

Donna Cobb, of the state watershed enforcement team, said her team found at least 22 water and fish and wildlife violations at the Robinson Mill Road home, but they were still tallying Friday afternoon. Those violations include stream alteration; depositing sediment into a stream; depositing garbage in the stream; road sediment issues; petroleum spilled all over the ground; and a cistern storing water from a metal pipe dug down into the stream.

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While many of the violations are administrative cases, some fish and wildlife violations can bump them up to felonies said Yvonne West, director of the Office of Enforcement for the California Water Resource Control Board.

"In order to solve environmental threats, that's where the water board comes in and exercises its authority with civil action," she told officials during a briefing on the property.

The cleanup of a site like this is expensive and lengthy: it can take up to three years and thousands of dollars. The property owner is ultimately responsible to pay the costs of consultants and professionals remedying the property, but that, too, comes with difficulties.

"Finding and holding responsible owners of these properties is one of the biggest challenges we face," West said. "It's a problem in banned counties because there's more incentive to hide who the property owners are."

Just a decade ago, law enforcement would just come in, cut the plants and leave, Anderson said. But with the boom in illegal cultivation has come the elaborate ploys that leave behind damaged land.

"It's evolving," he said.

Rachel Rosenbaum is a reporter for the Marysville Appeal Democrat. She can be reached at rrosenbaum@appealdemocrat.com.