A Humboldt County cannabis grower will pay at least $750,000 to settle a dispute with state water and wildlife agencies over alleged environmental violations at a 435-acre cultivation site in California’s famed Emerald Triangle. In the settlement agreement, licensed weed grower Joshua Sweet and his companies, The Hills LLC and Shadow Light Ranch LLC, admitted to violations of state water regulations over a period of several years.
“It is critical for all cannabis cultivators to be environmentally responsible and protect California’s water supply and water quality,” Taro Murano, program manager for the State Water Board’s Division of Water Rights cannabis enforcement section, said in a statement from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). “Sweet chose to operate his business while ignoring regulations designed to protect the environment. He must now remediate the environmental damage he caused and pay a significant penalty. No one should get a business advantage by ignoring the law and harming the environment.”
The settlement calls for Sweet to pay $1.75 million for the violations, which include illegally diverting and collecting water from unnamed tributaries of the South Fork Eel River that cross the property. According to the settlement terms, $1 million of the fine was suspended, but Sweet will be responsible for paying the additional $1 million if remediations to the property are not completed as agreed.
Multiple Environmental Violations at Cultivation Site
The settlement cites several violations, including building an unpermitted pond on a waterway to collect water for irrigating cannabis plants. Other violations include the destruction of wetland habitats and stream channels, converting oak woodland to cannabis cultivation and failure to work with state and local officials to satisfy permitting requirements.
Yvonne West, director of the State Water Resources Control Board’s office of enforcement, said that Sweet and his companies did not have the authority to divert water on the property and use it for cannabis cultivation. According to an email from the water board to nonprofit news outlet CalMatters, Sweet took about 16.2 acre-feet of water, approximately enough to supply about 49 households for a year, for a total of three ponds on the property between 2017 and 2020.
“This case represents years of hard work by dedicated staff to remediate damage to streambed channels, wetland habitat and oak woodlands,” said Nathaniel Arnold, acting chief of law enforcement for CDFW. “The settlement also speaks volumes to the egregious nature of this case and should send a strong message to those working outside of state regulations to cultivate cannabis. Our natural resources deserve to be respected.”
Included in the settlement agreement is a $500,000 payment for water rights violations, a record penalty for such a violation in the state of California. The defendants are also required to remove unpermitted ponds and restore wetlands and waterways as part of the agreement.
Grower Says Penalty Is Unfair
Sweet believes that the fines are unfair and excessive and that the case could have been handled differently.
“If the full penalty and remediation costs were due today it would take everything I own,” Sweet said in a statement to CalMatters.
“Although I will follow through with my end of the settlement, I do not believe this is fair or just, and I believe I have already suffered way too much,” Sweet said in the emailed statement.
“Even during our court-mandated settlement conference, they 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,” he added.
But state and local officials defended the settlement, saying it is justified by the actions taken at the property.
“The ordered penalties are modest given the scope of damage, the length of time the site has been left unremediated and considering the unjust enrichment or benefit to Mr. Sweet from running a business for several years without going through the necessary permitting process,” said Jeremy Valverde, assistant chief counsel at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in a statement emailed to CalMatters.
Joshua Curtis, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board’s assistant executive officer, said that Sweet and his businesses “for years resisted our attempts to cooperatively work on restoration and recovery of those resources, leaving formal enforcement as our only option.”
“This was an ongoing use by Mr. Sweet and the penalties are over an approximately four-year period for unauthorized diversion and use of water to support cultivation,” said West of the water board. “Five hundred dollars a day, multiple violations over a four-year period, does really add up. And then again we did have the additional types of violations at play here as well.”