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Cotton mouth: California pot startups are sucking the state dry

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A severe drought is putting the squeeze on California budding weed industry

(Credit: MarihuanayMedicina/Flickr)

The marijuana business is booming, with private investors pumping money into startups and a market that's expected to grow nearly five-fold to $10 billion over the next four years. But California — the earliest and largest state to legalize medicinal marijuana — is running into an entirely different resource crunch. A historic drought has made fresh water scarce, and marijuana turns out to be an especially thirsty plant.

"Old hippies are not our problem — old hippies get it."

According to a report in the New York Times, a single marijuana plant can consume between five and 10 gallons of water a day, far more than the 3.5 gallons required for a head of lettuce. In January, California declared a statewide drought emergency, and areas like Lake, Humboldt, and Mendocino counties — where pot production is estimated to have doubled between 2009 and 2012 — began to crack down on growers who were siphoning water from public streams.

"We knew people were diverting water for marijuana operations, but we wanted to know exactly how much," Scott Bauer, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Associated Press. He found several watershed sites had run dry. "We didn't know they could consume all the water in a stream."

Some have changed careers from growing pot to supplying water

The issue is most dire among the new breed of growers who are cultivating not for personal use, but in the hopes of building a big business. "Old hippies are not our problem — old hippies get it," Medicino Sheriff Thomas Allman told the New York Times. "I’m talking about people that move here in April, grow marijuana as fast as they can until October. The 20-year-old kid who wants to make his million bucks, and he’s using these steroid fertilizers. He doesn’t care about how much water he uses, or what he puts in the soil."

Of course, where there is potential disaster, there is also opportunity. "I've heard people shut down their grow operations, bought water trucks and have changed from growing to supplying waters to the other growers," said Chip Perry, a medical marijuana consultant.