NORTH BAY, Calif. (KTVU) - Four days of raids this week in the north coast's Emerald Triangle have resulted in the seizure of 86,000 marijuana plants. And authorities say they uncovered serious environmental damage caused by the farms.
"These are not minor or casual or accidental violations," Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman told reporters at a briefing Friday afternoon. "Many of these grows were absolutely in your face."
The raids targeted a remote area straddling Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties.
The Island Mountain area is an hour off any paved road, so far off the grid, it tended to get little law enforcement attention - until this week.
"This has to do with weed and environmental," declared Sheriff Allman, as he showed KTVU enlarged photos of trash, pesticides, makeshift ponds, tanks and greenhouses.
Allman said the investigation was spurred by community complaints, and that he was surprised by what he saw flying over Island Mountain.
"I thought we were going to see a dozen hoop houses" he noted, "and we saw well over 100 hoop houses, each 100 feet long with 300 plants in it."
Big grows aren't unusual in this region. Neither are big raids. They happen most summers, but this one was primarily on private property and did not involve trespassers on public lands. And instead of including federal drug agents, it tapped state Fish and Wildlife agents.
"I saw areas that were some of the most devastated areas I've ever seen," recounted Fish and Wildlife Lt. Chris Stoots, "and the amount of water, gallons of water in tanks out there, was unreal."
Almost 100 environmental violations were noted: most of them for diverting creeks and streams that flow to the Eel River.
The 86,000 plants seized would need about a half million gallons of water every day.
Lt. Stoots said the fork of the Eel River closest to the marijuana grows was stagnant, warm and full of algae.
"It just comes back to the need for collaboration and dialogue," Casey O'Neill of the Emerald Growers Association told KTVU, "and the enforcement approach doesn't deal with it. It doesn't solve the issue."
The trade association says their multi-billion dollar industry needs better guidance and regulation, not raids.
"It's trying to pound nails with a saw," complained O'Neill," and it doesn't work. It doesn't have any affect."
Sheriff's deputies from all three counties participated in the raids, serving a total of 20 warrants.
In addition to the plants, they also confiscated processed pot, cash, and a few firearms.
Most growers were gone when the convoys arrived, but there were a handful of arrests, and charges could include environmental degradation as well as illegal cultivation.
"We support legitimate medical marijuana," reiterated Sheriff Allman, "but not profiteering, and not at the expense of the environment."
Allman says the raids will resume in September.
"I have every reason to believe the grows will continue," he concluded.