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Illegal grow ops hit with massive water and eco fines

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The California North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board announced on October 7 that its enforcement actions against water quality violations increased by 25% in the ‘last two years, driven largely by its crackdown on cannabis growers whose activities threaten nearby waterways. In some cases the Council imposes massive fines and restitution costs.

The growing operations involved generally operate without permits and are allegedly dumping waste into creeks and rivers or recklessly building illegal roads that create erosion hazards. Council staff reported that, in addition to formal enforcement cases, dozens of potential violations are also currently under investigation.

The board’s intensified investigative and enforcement activities have resulted in a number of orders, proposed fines and a series of ongoing investigations that could lead to significant civil penalties. Growers who set up unlicensed operations on federal land can end up facing much more serious criminal charges that can lead to decades behind bars.

“Blanket disregard” for the environment

“While responsible cannabis cultivation is an important part of our region’s economic prosperity, the fact is that not everyone follows the rules.” said Claudia Villacorta, assistant executive officer for the North Coast Water Board. “The ongoing blatant disregard for crucial regulations that protect water quality poses a dangerous threat to our environment and quality of life.

“We have stepped up our enforcement efforts not only to safeguard the health of our streams and rivers, but to send a message to violators: If you damage our waterways, you will be investigated and cited.”

Since July 1, 2020, the council has issued 331 enforcement actions, an increase of 25% over the previous two years, which include:

  • 246 infringement notices (of these, 140 were issued to cannabis growers)
  • 30 notices of non-compliance
  • 12 cleanup and demolition orders (of this total, nine were issued to cannabis growers)
  • Nine complaints of administrative civil liability (a complaint filed against cannabis growers)
  • 14 administrative civil liability orders (one issued to cannabis growers)
  • Two prompt payment letters for mandatory minimum penalties

The following cases are examples of recent enforcement actions:

  • In early August, the council fined cannabis growers $301,950 on 100 acres in Humboldt County who built an undersized and misaligned road that threatened to cause erosion in the nearby Mad River . In that case, the court increased by 40% the fine proposed by the enforcement staff when the defendant did not appear at a hearing and never responded to the order to clean the area and lead the way to industry standards.
  • In late September, council staff issued a proposed fine of $506,813 for a Trinity County case involving unlicensed cannabis growers with repeated violations on their four-acre parcel. The unwillingness of accused growers to clean up and fix numerous water quality issues leads to heavy proposed penalties. The council will consider adopting the proposed fee at a council hearing in February 2023.

Penalties from $1,000 to $10,000 per day

“While prosecuting violations associated with the expansion of unlicensed cannabis cultivation is a top priority for the council, we also continue to enforce permits and investigate discharge violations for other types of agriculture and unlicensed dredge and fill activities. authorized in addition to the discharge violations related to industrial and construction activities.” added Villacorta.

“As with all types of investigations, there is regular failure by violators to comply with the terms in existing enforcement orders, but non-compliance will be met with higher penalties, from $1,000 to $10,000 per day.”

Members of the public who see or suspect water quality violations are encouraged to report them online through the CalEPA Environmental Complaint System. The public can also report violations by calling the regional council’s main line at 707-576-2220 or the North Coast enforcement coordinator at 707-576-2835. In all cases, the individual submitting the report is ensured anonymity.


The mission of the North Coast Water Board is to develop and enforce water quality objectives and implement plans that will best protect the waters of the region, recognizing our local differences in climate, topography, geology and hydrology.

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