Marijuana dump causes problems for fish, neighbors
Illegally dumped cannabis debris floats on the surface of Sonoma Creek downstream from Lawndale Bridge on Aug. 28. The reporting homeowner said previous dumps have coated the water up to an inch thick. Photo by Sarah C. Phelps.
For the past three years, someone has been dumping large amounts of cannabis stems and leaves into Sonoma Creek off of the bridge at Lawndale and Warm Springs roads The most recent dump, reported by a concerned homeowner downstream of the bridge, occurred on August 28, sometime between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m. The ground up cannabis debris floats on the surface of the slow-moving creek, coating the top of the water, sometimes over an inch thick, from the bridge for many yards downstream. Its pungent smell is unmistakable. “I don’t have an opinion one way or another on people using marijuana; if they want to smoke it, that’s up to them,” said the homeowner, who asked to remain anonymous, “but to do something like this – it has long-lasting effects.”
The homeowner’s top concern is the effect the cannabis may have on the creek ecosystem and the juvenile steelhead (smolt) and other fish that live in the small pool created by his dam. He also pointed out a Black-crowned Night Heron that regularly uses the area as its hunting ground, in addition to egrets, raccoons, and foxes. The homeowner’s attempts to skim the debris off the creek with a pool cleaner have been unsuccessful. The only way he has been able to clear it out has been to let water out of his dam. In an extreme drought year like this one, that isn’t good news for already struggling smolt.
While there is no scientific information available about the affects of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive chemical contained in cannabis, on fish, anecdotally marijuana is thought to affect a range of animals from dogs and cats to monkeys and deer. In Italy, forest rangers reported being led to a marijuana grow site by “unusually frisky” and “abnormally high-spirited” deer that were feeding on the marijuana plants. In 1948, Swiss pharmacologist P.N. Witt dosed spiders with a variety of psychoactive substances, including marijuana, LSD, and caffeine, proving that all had an effect on how the spiders built their webs. In 1995, NASA repeated some of Witt’s experiments, concluding that the higher the toxicity of the drug, the fewer sides of the web the spider completed. Spiders given marijuana started to spin their webs reasonably well, but were easily sidetracked and left them incomplete.
Caitlin Cornwall, research program manager for the Sonoma Ecology Center said that dumping any sort of green waste into a waterway, cannabis or not, is a problem. “As it composts, it uses up oxygen, which is bad for the fish,” she said. Green waste that contains any sort of fertilizer or pesticides, a possibility for cultivated marijuana, can also be harmful to aquatic life.
In waterways specifically, leaves and grass clippings absorb oxygen and release nutrients, choking out fish and causing toxic algae blooms. Green waste can also block storm drains, cause localized flooding, and create murky water and block sunlight needed for aquatic plant growth. Dumping of any green waste without a permit is considered illegal and can result in fines ranging from $50 to $10,000.
The homeowner said he has reported the seasonal dumping, which has happened a total of four times this year, to the Sonoma County Sheriff and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, but has been told there’s little enforcement that can be done unless someone is caught in the act, or a license plate of a vehicle is captured by an observant neighbor. He said he’d like to raise awareness in the area about this problem and hopefully someone will see something. “I know this won’t change anything immediately, but it takes a community,” he said.
Cornwall from the SEC confirmed marijuana activity is prevalent in much of Sonoma Valley, from public parks to private rural land. Marijuana growing operations affect streams through erosion, water diversion, and pesticide pollution. “Marijuana activity has bad effects on streams; that is well-documented,” she said.
To report illegal solid waste dumping in waterways, like what’s going on in Sonoma Creek, residents should call CalTIP, a hotline set up by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, at 1-888-334-2258.
If neighbors witness illegal dumping and can obtain a license plate number or some other identifying information, they can call Sonoma County Sheriff Dispatch at 565-2121.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.