A cannabis farmer in Humboldt County, California, has agreed to pay a record $750,000 penalty and restore the natural environment after state officials found him guilty of violating water and wildlife regulations. The farmer, Joshua Sweet, and his companies, Shadow Light Ranch, LLC and The Hills, LLC, were accused of destroying wetlands, diverting water from streams, and converting oak woodlands to grow cannabis without proper permits.
State Officials Say Violations Were Egregious and Continued for Years
The settlement, approved by the Humboldt County Superior Court and announced last week, is the result of years of inspections by state water and wildlife officials dating back to 2016. The officials said the violations by Sweet and his companies were “egregious” and continued for years, despite multiple notices of violation and cease and desist orders.
The officials said Sweet and his companies damaged the Bear Canyon Creek Watershed, which drains into the South Fork Eel River, a wild and scenic river that provides critical habitat for threatened and endangered species of steelhead, Chinook and coho salmon. They also said Sweet and his companies failed to obtain water rights, water quality certification, lake and streambed alteration agreements, and cannabis cultivation permits.
Farmer Claims Penalty Is Unfair and Excessive
Sweet, a licensed cannabis cultivator, agreed to pay $750,000, of which $500,000 is a record penalty for a water rights violation in California. He also agreed to remove unpermitted ponds and reservoirs, restore streams and wetlands, and implement erosion control and revegetation measures. If he fails to complete the remediation work, he will have to pay an additional $1 million.
However, Sweet said he did not believe the penalty was fair or just, and that he had already suffered too much. In a statement to CalMatters, he said, “If the full penalty and remediation costs were due today, it would take everything I own.”
He also said he felt he was being targeted by the state officials, who he claimed were “asked why they would go after a small independent businessman with these type of enormous fines usually reserved for huge corporations that destroy ecosystems.”
Settlement Comes Amid Growing Concerns Over Cannabis Water Use
The settlement comes as the cannabis industry in California is still trying to find its footing after legalization and as its water use, especially for illegal cannabis operations, becomes increasingly contentious. According to the state water board, cannabis cultivation can have significant impacts on water resources, such as reducing stream flows, degrading water quality, and harming aquatic and riparian habitats.
The state water board has been working with other agencies to regulate and enforce water and environmental laws for cannabis cultivation, as well as to provide incentives and assistance for compliance. The board said the settlement with Sweet and his companies was “a clear signal that the state will not tolerate unauthorized water use or environmental degradation from cannabis cultivation.”