A California Department of Fish and Wildlife warden walks through a dewatered stream in Southern Humboldt County in 2013 that was believed to have run dry from illegal water diversions by illicit cannabis grows. – Scott Bauer — contributed
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An Arcata-based environmental organization filed a lawsuit Wednesday claiming the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors’ recent expansion of the local cannabis industry violated state laws by allowing for new and larger farms in watersheds without first studying the impacts.

“The impacts of Humboldt’s cannabis industry are driving salmon and steelhead extinct in our watersheds,” Friends of the Eel River Conservation Director Scott Greacen said in a Wednesday afternoon statement after their group filed the lawsuit. “The county has gone ahead with permitting even more operations without doing the work needed to understand, much less minimize, those impacts.”

The Board of Supervisors approved the industry expansion in May through what planners dubbed Ordinance 2.0, which allowed for thousands of new farms to be permitted, allowed for new types of businesses like tourism, bud-and-breakfasts and farm stands and worked to address some of the issues in the county’s first set of cannabis rules passed in January 2016.

In its notice to the county Monday, the Friends of the Eel River nonprofit organization claims Ordinance 2.0 and its accompanying environmental review failed to address how new and expanded grows affect watersheds that have already been damaged by cannabis activities through water diversions, pesticide use and sediment deposits into the waters caused by illegal grading and road construction.

The environmental organization’s attorney Michael Lozeau wrote in a letter to county Counsel Jeffrey Blanck on Tuesday that they are calling on the superior court to halt implementation of the ordinance until the litigation is resolved. Lozeau wrote they also are seeking the county to set aside its approval of Ordinance 2.0 and its environmental review.

County Counsel Jeffrey Blanck said Wednesday morning that he had not received the organization’s notice of intent yet, but said he’s not surprised about it considering Friends of the Eel River representatives had said during public comment at board meetings that they intended to sue the county.

“I’ll wait to see it and see what we’re going to do,” Blanck said.

Greacen previously identified Salmon Creek and Redwood Creek in southern Humboldt County as two watersheds of particular concern because of the impacts already sustained and the number of farms that are seeking permits in the area.

The organization says many of these watersheds support threatened or endangered species, such as Coho salmon.

Under Ordinance 2.0, only 3,500 new farms encompassing a total of 1,200 acres will be allowed to be approved. Those farms will be split up between 12 different watersheds scattered throughout the county.

The board sought to address environmental impact concerns raised by state agencies and organizations such as the Friends of the Eel River by prohibiting any new farms being approved or existing farms to be expanded in lands near 11 rivers and creeks.

These waters have been identified by the state as having already been impacted by cannabis — namely through illegal diversions — or is critical habitat for species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Representatives from Friends of the Eel River called for the board to perform studies on whether watersheds could handle new grows before allowing any new farms to be permitted or existing farms to expand.

In a news release on Wednesday, the organization criticized the county’s efforts to addressing the black market through bringing as many people into compliance as an “approach that tries to wish away the economic and ecological limits the legal industry must face.”

Friends of the Eel River Executive Director Stephanie Tidwell said with the passage of Ordinance 2.0, the board has decided to “prop up yet another boom-and-bust industry.”

“As was the case with the old-growth logging industry a generation ago, the boom times of the Emerald Triangle’s weed industry are over, and the bust is upon us,” Tidwell said.

“If we are to break the cycle, we must not only minimize the industry’s ecological footprint but also plan for a future that embraces diversified, sustainable economic development instead of short-term gain.”

This is not the first time the county’s marijuana regulations have been sued over environmental concerns.

After approving its first cannabis industry rules in January 2016, the Board of Supervisors was sued by the Humboldt-Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project a month later.

The HumMAP lawsuit sought a court order requiring the county to conduct a full environmental review before it could begin issuing commercial medical marijuana cultivation, distribution and manufacturing permits. The lawsuit also sought to nullify any permits that had already been issued.

The county argued it did not need to conduct a full environmental review for the first set of rules because it limited new farms to prime agricultural soils and brought existing farms into regulation.

HumMAP and the county settled later in the year, with the county agreeing to conduct a full environmental review when it made any expansions to the industry.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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