It’s about 6:30 at night; the sun is just setting over the desert. To the west, somewhere just this side of the Los Angeles County line, a water truck pulls up to a lone fire hydrant standing at the end of a desolate dirt road. The driver gets out, connects up a 2.5-inch diameter hose, pulls out a pipe wrench, and proceeds to open the valve at the top of the hydrant. Water begins to flow, filling the 4000-gallon tank in a matter of minutes. The driver then turns off the valve but doesn’t quite get it to shut off all the way, and water continues to leak out of the hydrant.
The driver jumps back in the truck and drives off. Over time, because the wrong tool was used, the nut at the top of the valve eventually becomes stripped, rendering the hydrant useless. Should emergency responders need to access that hydrant to fight a wildfire, they would be unable to open the valve or lose precious time trying to field repair the valve.
The water truck continues down the long dusty road, turns onto another narrow winding dirt road until it reaches a compound that can barely be seen from the nearest street or highway. Raised dirt berms surround this fortress, clearly designed to protect what lies within and keep out prying eyes. The only clue about what might be beyond these mounded perimeter walls is several opaque plastic-covered curved rooftops peeking out just above the eight, maybe ten-foot-tall berms.
Now inside the compound, the truck pulls up to one of several 300-gallon water totes, the ones that are encased in a metal cage, and begins to fill them up one by one. It only takes about 13 of them to empty the water truck’s tank. The truck swings back around and exits to make another run.
Meantime at a hydrant, 1/2 mile from the first one, a pickup truck with a water tote in the bed is filled up in much the same way as the prior. Once filled, the pickup truck drives off towards the setting sun only to disappear into yet another compound, this time surrounded by a barrier of eight-foot-tall chain-link fencing covered with green privacy screen with the same type of rooftops peeking above the fence line.
This scene plays out hundreds of times per week across many remote high desert regions of San Bernardino County from El Mirage to Lucerne Valley and beyond into Riverside County to the east and Los Angeles County to the west.
Water trucks and water totes seem to be the hot commodity these days. On any given day, you can see pickups with trailer loads of empty totes traveling up and down local roads. You may even see stacks of them sitting in someone’s yard with a “For Sale” sign placed along the roadside. And you may see unmarked water trucks traveling here and there, though those tend to stay on dirt roads and out of sight. The sudden interest in water and all things water storage lies with those opaque plastic-covered curved rooftops. They are called hoop greenhouses, and the water is used to grow the plants that live inside those hoop greenhouses. And most likely, those plants are cannabis or marijuana. Over the last few years and more so in recent months, these compounds have been popping up in alarming numbers across the desert valley floor between Pinon Hills and El Mirage. One “grow,” as these types of compounds are commonly called, is located just 10 miles north of downtown Phelan. It sits on 20 acres of land and contains over 50 hoop greenhouses. Each greenhouse is about 30′ wide and 60′ long and capable of housing over 300 adult plants or around 3,600 seedlings. These plants are thirsty.
Water is just one part of the complicated issue of marijuana in the United States. Legal, environmental, philosophical, and political views all play into society’s views on growing, using, and selling marijuana. There is a lot to be figured out, and many decisions regarding laws and regulations pertaining to marijuana have unexpected outcomes, such as water use in the High Desert. It’s a complex issue with many layers. Following the water from the hydrant to the plant is only half the water story. The hydrant is merely the middle man. Following the water from the hydrant to the source brings perspective to the issue of water use.
Growing marijuana outdoors in San Bernardino County is illegal. Grows are usually located in areas where there is no immediate access to water. If they had access to water, it would most likely be metered. This means growers would have to pay for their water use, and grows use a lot of water. Using an excessive amount of water and racking up overage fees would not only lower the grower’s profit but bring unwanted attention to their nefarious activities, and they don’t want that.
The solution to their dilemma is simply to steal the water. Besides the fact that it’s stealing, the problem with stealing water is that it directly affects legitimate, law-abiding water users.
Phelan, Pinon Hills, Wrightwood, El Mirage, and the surrounding areas are unique compared to most other southern California cities. The source of their water comes from aquifers located underneath their communities. Water wells pump water up from the aquifers into holding tanks, which feeds the water system that delivers water to homes and businesses. There is no dependence on water sources located hundreds of miles away, no dependence on the California Aqueduct. This is a blessing but also a curse.
There is a finite amount of water that can collect in the aquifer. Think of it as a bathtub. When times are good, snow accumulates in the mountains, rain soaks the desert floor, water percolates down into the aquifer, and water is plentiful. The tub is replenished to the brim with water. When times are not so good, drought conditions, no rain, and no snow, water becomes scarce. The tub is not so full. The one constant through this cycle is that water continues to be consumed, which further lowers the tub’s amount of water. Once the tub is empty, there is no water to drink, shower, cook, or grow marijuana.
Water providers such as Golden State, Sheep Creek, and the Phelan Pinon Hills CSD are charged with delivering this water to their customers. Each owns a certain amount of water rights, allowing them to pump a certain amount of water per year out of the tub. For this service and the continued maintenance of the system, they have to charge their water users. Suppose a grower was obtaining their water through a meter. In that case, the amount of water a grower uses could easily cost thousands of dollars per year and alert authorities to potential violations of zoning, environmental, and legal regulations—too much attention.
Water providers know how much water they are allowed to pump, they know how much they pump, and they know, from the water meters, how much water is being stored and consumed. If they are pumping more water than is being consumed, they have pumped an excess of water, which needs to be accounted for. There are only a few places excess water can go. One source is leakage. Typically an acceptable amount of leakage within a water system is about 10% of the water pumped. Pipes leak; there is no way around it. Another source is theft. Water could be stolen by illegally tapped waterlines, diverted waterlines around meters, illegal wells, or even directly out of hydrants (which also contributes to leakage). The bottom line is water providers know where their water usage, and they know how much is being stolen.
Water theft results in the tub draining faster than expected. The amount of water refilling the tub may not be able to keep up, especially in drought conditions, with the amount of water being taken out. This results in an empty tub or at the very least a limited or reduced amount of water in the tub.
Water providers are required to provide water to their users. They need to have a secondary water source, which could mean pulling water from the California Aqueduct, which is very expensive, or trucking water, which is also very expensive. Water providers would have to find a water provider with water to sell and have water trucks pull up to hydrants, fill up and then drive back and dump the water into the tub to refill it. All of this adds up and, in the end, results in increased water rates. Additionally, each hydrant damaged by water thieves can cost up to $1000 in repair costs.
Each household uses approximately one-half acre-foot of water per year. Picture a tub that is one square acre in size filled with water to a depth of six inches. A 20 acre grow with over 50 greenhouses is estimated to use 100-acre feet of water per year. Picture that same square acre-sized tub; only now it is filled to a depth of 100 feet. That’s just one grow. High Desert communities are losing thousands upon thousands of acre-feet of water every year from water theft, most likely coming from illegal marijuana grows.
Following the water from the source to the hydrant to the marijuana plant reveals the seemingly unrelated effects that illegal marijuana grows have on High Desert communities. Water companies, communities, counties, politicians, and law enforcement have to figure out how to solve this issue before it’s too late and millions of desert residents run out of water.