September 14, 2021 — The Board of Supervisors is set to discuss the referendum to repeal the new cannabis ordinance today. Petitioners gathered a qualifying number of signatures, which means the board can either repeal the ordinance themselves, or submit the decision to the voters for a special election.
Growers who struggled to get licensed under the previous ordinance (Chapter 10a17 of the county code) have submitted several rounds of paperwork. In some cases, they’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars to bring their properties into compliance with evolving regulations. Now they’re being told that the old county ordinance provides no hope of legalization under state law. Advocates fear that, without the new ordinance, which aligns with state requirements, the local legal cannabis industry will collapse.
But the promise of legalization, set in motion five years ago by 10a17, hasn’t materialized for non-growers either. What has proliferated are acres of plastic hoop houses, imported soil, water trucks, and violent crime. The failure to curtail flagrantly illegal activity has led to widespread skepticism about the county’s ability to enforce any ordinance.
I drove out to Covelo a few days ago. While I was driving around slowly looking for the addresses of people I was supposed to meet, I saw so many large grows I literally lost count. And I learned in a hurry to stick to my side of the narrow, winding roads. Even on Sunday, the wide heavy water trucks are underway. One man I spoke with said that sometimes, he’ll look out the door of his home by the river and calculate how much water is going by.
By the time I arrived, around 9:30 in the morning, he said he had already seen ten trucks hauling 2,000 gallons of water each, and another ten trucks hauling 4,000 gallons each. “So there’s 60,000 a day, right there,” he concluded. I told him what I had seen as I drove through town, and he said, “out here it’s even worse. The abuses are even worse, because you can’t see it. It’s all in the hills, and it’s hidden.”
Wells are going dry all over the valley. Robbie Wyre, a member of the Round Valley County Water District, reported that the well for the trailer park in town has been dry since last Tuesday. He estimates between 100 and 200 people depend on water from that well.
Update: On Tuesday afternoon (September 14), a representative of Housing and Community Development said an inspection on September 9 showed no violations and that the well was functioning. KZYX reached one of the owners listed by the county. He expressed surprise that he was still on the title. KZYX was unable to reach the other party, and the phone number listed on the website for the mobile home park was out of order. Here is the full statement from HCD:
“HCD received an anonymous complaint and inspected the mobilehome park on September 9, 2021. The water well had water and was functioning on that date – no violations were found and the complaint has been closed. HCD has not received any other complaints as of today, September 13. HCD’s priority is to protect the health and safety of mobilehome park residents – if another complaint is received we will perform additional inspections.”
One woman in town noticed that her artesian well is beginning to sputter, “and I’ve never had a problem with water,” she said. “Without water, there’s no life. Nobody can live here without water.”
Most of the people I spoke with wanted to remain anonymous, and some were even afraid their voices would be recognized. “It’s pretty intense out here now,” said the man who counted water trucks. “It’s scary, because there’s so much money behind this, and there’s so much at stake. It’s a bad situation, and it’s getting worse every day. Every year.”
Another woman, who’s been running cattle in the valley for years, said she was looking for stray cows one day when a man “came racing out on a four-wheeler with this gun...and we just very friendly-like asked if he had seen some cows, and he was like, oh, yeah, yeah...but there’s nobody out there. I don’t know why he’s running around with this gun with a huge magazine in it, very obviously illegal.”
The county has started staffing up for a multi-department enforcement effort involving aerial surveillance and property liens. But that’s expected to take years to roll out. I asked the rancher if she had a firm opinion about either one of the ordinances. “Everything has to be enforced,”she said emphatically. “And if it is not enforced, it doesn’t matter. In fact, people around here are just used to the fact that nothing will be enforced. For hundreds of years, that’s been the attraction of Covelo. You know, it’s lawless.”
Like badly regulated industries everywhere, environmental degradation and labor law violations abound. The river runs through the property of the man who watches a steady stream of water trucks heading into the hills. He reported that he cleans up everything from toilet paper to shampoo and detergent bottles. “These people have no sanitary facilities on their grow ops,” he explained. “So they come to the river to bathe and wash their clothes. And do their sanitary, you know, defecate.” He also worries about the effects of the illegal rodenticides on the wildlife.
The rancher suspects she has first-hand knowledge of those effects. She discovered an expensive bull that had died abruptly after writhing, “which is suggestive of poisoning,” she said. “And we don’t know if he got into their pesticides, or what happened. I think we’re just going to have to keep them farther away from where people are...it just limits the amount of ground where we can actually run the cattle.”
In the quasi-regulated environment, the outlaws are bolder than they used to be. The woman with the sputtering well described the local, small-time growers as “really good people, community minded, and wonderful members of this little town. Perhaps they were more discreet. It wasn’t so in your face. But now, who am I to say what’s legal and what’s not, but I see it expanding to a point that just seems out of control.”