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MENDOCINO COUNTY (KPIX 5) — To say Mendocino County is tolerant when it comes to marijuana would be an understatement. Amid a severe drought, authorities have no tolerance for marijuana growers who are stealing water.
Sheriff Tom Allman has a new mission. “We’re now becoming the water police,” Allman told KPIX 5.
“We know in the fall of the year we’re going to be seeing upwards of 5 million gallons of water per day being used for illegal marijuana. Not medical, illegal,” Allman said.
And that is water that Mendocino County simply does not have. Despite a slight drizzle at the end of January, the town of Willits is actually looking at running out of water in about 90 days. The town relies almost entirely on rainfall to fill its two reservoirs.
While residents and businesses make sacrifices to conserve, the townsfolk know what is happening outside of city limits.
“People will just be taking water out of the shared, you know, out of a creek or other water source so it’s having a really negative impact on our forest lands, on our streams,” said Mayor Holly Madrigal of Willits.
One of the concerns the sheriff has is illegal marijuana growers tapping into open irrigation canals, such as the ones in Potter Valley.
“If you take your water tank at night and you fill it full of water by sucking it up, we’re going to arrest you for grand theft. It’s not petty theft. It’s grand theft of natural resources,” Allman said.
The sheriff said some growers actually drill illegal wells, while others tap into their neighbors’ water tanks and bury the pipe.
According to Allman, the most flagrant offense is something they see about four times a year. “Somebody will take a PVC pipe and just in front of God and everyone, just put it directly into one of the headwaters of our rivers here and pump water out of that and send it to a holding tank,” the sheriff said.
The sheriff told KPIX 5 that he is more concerned about water theft than marijuana being grown. “This is a drought. We don’t have a way to make the water come out of the sky. So what we’re doing is focusing our energy and our resources towards the people who are misusing the water that we have,” Allman said.
As far as getting convictions, Allman said, “It’s very hard to find a jury that’s going to convict somebody for growing marijuana.”
“But if we go in front of a jury and say they were growing marijuana but they were stealing water, illegally diverting water, causing environmental degradation, and we know that’s going to have jury appeal and we’re going to get convictions,” he said.
The sheriff said, to be clear, this is about water. Allman said if someone were stealing water to wash their clothes, they would go after them just as hard as someone stealing it to water pot plants.
According to Allman, until a week ago they were getting a couple of calls a month about illegal water diversion. Ever since he made it a priority, the sheriff is receiving 30 calls a day.