California cannabis water requirements This past week the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (“BCC”), along with a number of other state regulatory agencies, held three cannabis business licensing workshops – the last one in Sacramento. These licensing workshops received a lot of attention but they weren’t as informative or as consequential to the California cannabis industry as the staff report and Cannabis Cultivation Policy (“Policy”) released by the State Water Resources Control Board (“Board”) on October 17, 2017 — the same day as the Sacramento workshop. For many, this might be the first you’re hearing of the Board’s report or perhaps of the Board’s involvement in cannabis regulation at all. If you need a little refresher, you’ve come to the right place.

After enactment of the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (“MCRSA”), Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 837 (“SB 837”) into law. SB 837 added a number of environmental protection provisions to the MCRSA and tasked the Board with coming up with guidelines to protect the environment. When the Medicinal and Adult Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (“MAUCRSA”) was enacted this past June, the Board’s role in regulating the cannabis industry was solidified. MAUCRSA specifically states that the California Department of Food and Agriculture shall include in any license for cultivation all of the following:

“Conditions requested by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Resources Control Board to (A) ensure that individual and cumulative effects of water diversion and discharge associated with cultivation do not affect the instream flows needed for fish spawning, migration, and rearing, and the flows needed to maintain natural flow variability; (B) ensure that cultivation does not negatively impact springs, riparian habitat, wetlands, or aquatic habitat; and (C) otherwise protect fish, wildlife, fish and wildlife habitat, and water quality. The conditions shall include, but not be limited to, the principles, guidelines, and requirements established pursuant to Section 13149 of the Water Code (emphasis added).”

In its report, the Board divided California’s 163,696 square miles into fourteen regions — nine of which are identified as priority regions because they support salmon. The nine priority regions are: Klamath, Upper Sacramento, North Coast, Middle Sacramento, Southern Sacramento, North Central Coast, South Central Coast, San Joaquin, and South Coast. The Board is particularly concerned with the discharge of pesticides, fertilizers, fuels, and trash into California’s waters. The unfortunate truth is that not all cannabis cultivators are good stewards of our precious environment. Furthermore, when combined with years of drought, the practice of water diversion threatens water quality and aquatic habitat. The Board then listed the following twelve items of concern when addressing waste discharges:

  1. Site development and maintenance, erosion control, and drainage features;
  2. Stream crossing installation and maintenance;
  3. Riparian and wetland protection and management;
  4. Soil disposal;
  5. Water storage and use;
  6. Irrigation runoff;
  7. Fertilizers and soil;
  8. Pesticides and herbicides;
  9. Petroleum products and other chemicals;
  10. Cannabis cultivation waste;
  11. Refuse and human waste; and
  12. Cleanup, restoration, and mitigation

The Board’s Policy provides for a statewide-tiered approach for permitting waste discharges from cannabis cultivation, depending on whether the cultivation is for personal use, indoor commercial cultivation, or outdoor commercial cultivation. The criteria for outdoor commercial cannabis cultivators will vary depending on the size of the disturbed area, but they’ll mainly focus on the slope of the disturbed area and the proximity to a surface water body. The Policy also details the different ways for cultivators to register and establish their water rights.

The Policy comes in at a hefty eighty-nine pages and contains too many regulations for one blog post to cover it all. What’s clear is that the Board takes its role as an environmental steward very seriously. We’ll have to wait and see whether cannabis cultivators in California will be able to satisfy the Board’s proposed regulations. A cultivator’s state license will depend on it.