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Marijuana growers get grants: California offers cannabis farmers $20M to get permits, save water and help wildlife

By Jessica Skropanic, Redding Record Searchlight,

2023-03-15

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Rather than lock horns over environmental and permitting issues, California and its cannabis farmers are working together to give wildlife space, conserve water and reduce the number of unlicensed grows.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife earmarked more than $20 million to help growers restore and conserve their properties, and become fully licensed.

Money from the agency’s Cannabis Restoration Grant Program covers "upgrading road crossings and culverts, cleanup and remediation of illegal grow sites and many other important projects that benefit the environment,” Cannabis Program Director Amelia Wright said.

The CDFW finds most environmental problems at illicit cannabis grows, Wright said: Water diversion tactics, habitat destruction, banned pesticide use, wildlife poaching and trash near waterways.

"In the regulated market, cannabis cultivators work closely with state regulators to minimize environmental impacts," she said. That's why the CDFW wants to get more growers permitted.

Permitting requirements, like road improvements and culvert upgrades, can be expensive, Wright said. Grants can help curb those costs, but the money doesn't go straight to farmers. Instead it's handed to nonprofits, tribes, government agencies and other organizations that manage environmental projects for landowners.

Farmers are "having a difficult time” navigating the red tape needed to understand and meet California Environmental Quality Act requirements, said Casey O’Neill, owner of HappyDay Farms in Mendocino.

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A farmer for 15 years, O’Neill said he grows almost two acres of vegetables year-round, and a quarter-acre of cannabis from April to November.

A $1.3 million grant through the Mendocino Resource Conservation District paid for consultants to help O’Neill and other area farmers with permitting, he said. It bankrolled installation of 432 efficient water storage facilities and helped farmers build irrigation systems and retrofit equipment to save water. The money also covered legacy fence removal, so wildlife can move more freely through the area.

While cannabis has a reputation for being a thirsty plant, O’Neill said he waters his summer squash as much, if not more. "We strive for regenerative agriculture,” he said of his desire to have a farm that restores the land as it uses it.

Funded by California’s Environmental Restoration and Protection account, the CDFW birthed the grant program in 2020 to help fund cleanup and restore environmentally damaged areas, including watersheds affected by cannabis cultivation.

The agency awarded almost $5 million in grants in 2022, Wright said, and she expects that number to quadruple in 2023 as more growers learn about the program.

Last year, the state hosted technical assistance workshops in Northern California “where staff met with the cultivator community face-to-face,” Wright said .

The fruits of those and other outreach efforts is the CDFW is currently managing five grant-funded projects, and is considering another 11 applications.

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“We want to hear from all cultivators interested in implementing ecological growing practices, reducing impacts to California’s natural resources, contributing to conservation and becoming fully licensed,” Wright said .

For more information, go to the CRGP website or email canngrantprogram@wildlife.ca.gov .

Jessica Skropanic is a features reporter for the Record Searchlight/USA Today Network. She covers science, arts, social issues and news stories. Follow her on Twitter @RS_JSkropanic and on Facebook . Join Jessica in the Get Out! Nor Cal recreation Facebook group. To support and sustain this work, please subscribe today. Thank you.

This article originally appeared on Redding Record Searchlight: Marijuana growers get grants: California offers cannabis farmers $20M to get permits, save water and help wildlife

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