Watching for the signs: Nevada County to look for further change in cannabis, climate and water use |

Watching for the signs: Nevada County to look for further change in cannabis, climate and water use

Suspected fentanyl products in the Grass Valley Police Department custody are dyed different colors as they are pressed into pills. The fentanyl epidemic has swept across the country, and will likely be an issue for local law enforcement in the coming year.
Photo: Elias Funez

Looking forward, Nevada County’s most valuable assets — the water, the cannabis and the land — face crux points in 2022.

Then there are the effects of a pandemic about to enter its third year.

The region’s suicide rate remained unchanged before the start of the pandemic and a year in, but the effects of COVID-19 quarantine and the changing landscape of controlled substances beg questions about the county’s collective mental health.

Recent statistics on fetanyl overdoses indicate that it accounted for half of the deaths by accidental overdose in Nevada County. Nineteen people died in 2019, and 38 people died in 2020. According to Captain Jeff Pettit, half of those deaths recorded in 2020 involved fetanyl.

Although mental health professionals reported an increased need for services, the nationwide suicide rate dropped 3% from 2019 to 2020. According to a November report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the only significant difference between the data collected in 2019 and 2020 is seen in April 2019 and 2020. The provisional number provided indicated a 14% drop in suicides — 4,029 to 3,468.

Grass Valley Police Detective Chris Roberds shows some of the department’s recent fentanyl confiscations this week.
Photo: Elias Funez

According to Police Chief Alex Gammelgard, the Grass Valley Police Department used Narcan with five people in 2021. Gammelgard said some of them received multiple doses per incident, which is common based upon response to first and subsequent doses.

“Since fall of 2016, we have administered it 20 times,” Gammelgard said.

Although some experts suggest that the financial pressures imposed by job loss during the pandemic would exacerbate existing mental issues, the median income in Nevada County rose over 5% in the last year.

According to the Mountain Housing Council of Tahoe Truckee, the area median income of Nevada County is $92,400.

“That seems pretty high to me,” Habitat for Humanity’s Development Director Jim Phelps said, “but when you think about the influx of people that bought houses here during the pandemic, a lot of them brought their wealth and income with them.”

Phelps said the imported wealth has definitive effects on the median field price of a home, noting that Zillow’s average price for a home in the area, which varies greatly between South County and North Lake Tahoe’s vacation rentals, breached $650,000 at one point.

“That prices out more labor workers here,” Phelps said. “Unless they commute to Sacramento, most of the families are not making that. They can’t really afford to buy a house.”

Phelps said the rental market is then made more hostile by an already low inventory being bought up by transplants.

Products that have tested positive for fentanyl by Grass Valley Police Department await confirmation from a laboratory.
Photo: Elias Funez

“The combination of so many homes being sold took homes off the rental market, then the relative lack of affordable apartments has really put the squeeze on individuals and families in terms of affordability,” Phelps said.

Construction costs nationwide peaked just before summer 2021, making the alternative option of buying land and building a home still hostile for locals. Housing advocates and experts in the area said the increased cost of lumber, along with basic household appliances, exacerbated the region’s pre-existing inventory issues, which were exacerbated by the effects of the Zoom Boom amid the pandemic’s Bay Area exodus.


The region’s burgeoning cannabis industry took a hit with licensed cultivators selling flower at half the price as the year previous.

According to Nevada County’s Chief Fiscal Officer Martin Polt, the county generates cannabis tax revenue purely from cultivators. Since the county started collecting revenue from licensed growers in January 2020, it has collected $691,000 in cannabis taxes.

“The sales tax on the cultivation is based on a point of sale, and then a certain percentage comes to the unincorporated county,” Polt said. “Somehow they track and trace what’s grown in the unincorporated area, and at some point that comes back to the county as a sales tax building and permit fee.”

Polt indicated the county’s revenue from cannabis definitely declined.

“I don’t know all the details, but I know prices are going down,“ Polit said. ”I’m not sure about the volume of the product coming from unincorporated areas, but this year we are seeing a decline in those revenues.“

There are no unincorporated cannabis retailers in Nevada County, Polt said, just Nevada City’s Elevation 2477’.

Grass Valley currently has applicants to its newly legalized retail permit process. It’s accepted one to receive the sole legalized commercial cannabis permit it has made available. The application fee for the permit was $2,137.60.

In Elevation 2477’s first year of operation, the business was in the top 25 sales tax revenue generating businesses of the 526 based in Nevada City.

Elevation 2477’ generated over $100,000 of excise tax revenue for the city, said Elevation’s co-owner, Daniel Batchelor, adding that any excess is required to go to the state.

“Although the future of the individual cannabis farmer is uncertain for some who did not save for the hard year, the industry is certain to generate revenue on behalf of the state,” Polt said.

According to the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, the state collected $1.1 billion dollars in tax revenue in 2020 alone.


Nevada County ended last year with record snowfall. The UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab reported precipitation was the third snowiest month on record, with 212 inches of snowfall.

The California Department of Water Resources’ first Sierra snowpack survey of the water year was on Dec. 30. The Central Sierra is beginning the new year with 16.8 inches of snow-water equivalent, 164% of what is normal for this time of year, and 58% of what surveyors estimate by the end of the winter season.

In west county at lower elevations, the Christmas storm yielded a total of 33 inches of liquid equivalent — rain and snow melt — of precipitation since the water year began Oct. 1.

“The recent storm really helped,” NID Communications Specialist Susan Lauer said. “At Bowman, you can see that precipitation is now 147% of average. That’s very good. Unfortunately, the forecast predicts dry weather in the near future.”

Lauer said the Nevada Irrigation District is still behind its average by about 7,500 acre-feet.

“That’s 96% of average and 66% total capacity,” Lauer said. “So we still have some room to make up.”


The Nisenan Rancheria continues to offer guidance as residents in the region consider how to conserve, to create defensible space and reimagine their relationship with forest fires.

The Nisenan established a presence on Broad Street to promote “visibility through art” six years after the Maidu Tribe vacated the HEW Building in downtown Nevada City.

The California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project stewarded by Shelly Covert of the Nevada City Rancheria settled into an empty Nevada City gallery front at ‘Uba Seo.

Since the physical space opened in July, Covert and collaborators have procured three distinct exhibits.

The educational information, collected by Covert and collaborators, combined with old and new art, is meant to help integrate the Nisenan’s truth into a post-colonial reality, Covert said.

Covert said she looks forward to helping steward and contextualize projects in all realms of Nevada City, from the community’s relationship to fire, death and common respect.

In doing so, Covert said she may be able to help members of her tribe gain what was doubly lost to them after their initial colonization and then revocation of their federal recognition in the 1950s.

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at

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