Pot season reveals environmental damage

PORTLAND — Police discovered at least 200,000 marijuana plants in raids during the busy Oregon growing and harvest season that just ended.

But that's not all they found.

They also came upon jury-rigged irrigation pools filled with chemical fertilizers, causing worry among officials and environmentalists that already-threatened steelhead runs could be at risk.

In Grant County, for example, dams and chemical-laden pools were discovered along crystal-clear tributaries of the John Day River. Pot-growing operations, most run by Mexican cartels, pour fertilizer into the pools and run irrigation lines to their plants.

"They dump it by the 50-pound sack right into the water supply," said Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer, whose department seized 60,000 pot plants at nine operations this summer in raids with the Oregon State Police, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and other agencies.

"It's a really concentrated level," he said. "You know it's got to be harmful for the environment."

The rise of cartel-run operations have led to other problems, too: Rural sheriffs say frequent raids squeeze their already-pinched budgets and small staffs. In Malheur County, some ranchers have started packing guns even on horseback in case they encounter armed marijuana growers.

Officials won't have a final tally for a month or so on the amount of marijuana seized in Oregon in this year's raids, but it could reach 215,000 plants worth about $451 million, said Chris Gibson, director of a federal program that targets Oregon's high-trafficking areas.

That's up from 78,000 plants last year, when a late spring and heavy snows made it difficult for growers to reach the backcountry, but not as high as the record 300,000 plants seized in 2007.

The John Day River system — with the most miles of river in the nation designated as wild and scenic — is important habitat for Middle Columbia steelhead runs, which were federally listed as threatened in 1999.

Brent Fenty, executive director of the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association, said fertilizer typically contains high nitrate levels.

"I think there's going to be universal concern among the folks that this isn't the appropriate use of the federal land and could very well have impacts on salmon and steelhead recovery," he said.

He knows of no fish die-offs over the summer but said steelhead and salmon could be vulnerable if the practice continues, especially during low summertime flows.

Sheriff Palmer said the growers' indiscriminate use of fertilizer so alarmed the BLM that the agency sent a hazardous-materials expert along on raids to make sure officers weren't exposed to harmful chemicals.

Palmer also saw cisterns excavated by growers this summer that were up to 7 feet deep. At one grow site, he saw as much as four miles of irrigation feeder lines.

Police destroy cisterns and gather irrigation lines at the sites they find. But with only Palmer and three deputies to patrol a county twice the size of Delaware, he said, environmental damage undoubtedly goes undiscovered.

"These people know we don't have 24-hour, seven-day-a-week police coverage," he said of the Mexican gangs. "I think they are experimenting to see what they can do and what they can get away with."

In Malheur County, Undersheriff Brian Wolfe said empty packages of Miracle-Gro and other lawn fertilizers have been found at marijuana raids. About 70,000 marijuana plants were seized in the county this summer.

Meanwhile, some ranchers, long accustomed to keeping rifles in their pickups, are taking sidearms and rifles on horseback, too, because they fear run-ins with growers.

"I think most people have a gun with them," said rancher Bob Skinner, 59, whose family came to Jordan Valley to raise cattle in 1863. "You can't dial 9-1-1 here. For one thing, there is no cell coverage. Second, what good would it do to call 9-1-1 when you are three hours from the nearest response?"

"It is definitely a scary, dangerous situation," said Bill Moore, 54, of Unity, a rancher and president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association. "I'm not sure I wouldn't rather put up with the wolves and the grizzly bears than these marijuana farmers."

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