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Thirsty (And Illegal) Pot Farms Stealing Water Amid California's Epic Drought

Thirsty (And Illegal) Pot Farms Stealing Water Amid California's Epic Drought

Roughly 72 million gallons of water were used to irrigate illegal pot farms in San Diego County. That could serve 440 families for a year, according to law enforcement officials.

Last week, officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced at a news conference at the agency's San Diego office that they shut down 38 indoor and 60 outdoor pot operations in the county so far this year, seizing 88,213 plants. Of those, 52,439 plants were removed from public lands. According to the officials, most of the farms used stolen water or water diverted from natural sources.

"During this time of drought, San Diegans should be concerned that our water is being stolen for a criminal enterprise,” said the DEA. The agency estimates it takes approximately 900 gallons of water to bring an outdoor marijuana plant to harvest, and 450 gallons for a plant grown indoors.

“With the ongoing drought here in California, we’re all aware of how important it is to conserve water ... but what most people don’t realize is how much water is used to grow a marijuana plant and that most of that water is stolen,” DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Gary Hill told the San Diego Tribune.

One 13,000-plant farm "sucked a nearby natural well dry," said Hill. Another operation "illegally siphoned" water from a Valley Center Municipal Water District hydrant. The 72 million gallons of water equates to 220 acre feet (AF) of water, according to Gary Arant, general manager of the Valley Center Municipal Water District.

“Had these marijuana plants been seized from our district, at our current rates for water and pumping, 220 AF of theft would represent $420,000 in lost water and pumping revenue, which has to be made up by our other customers," said Arant.

The number of plant seizures is down slightly compared to this time last year, but arrests and seizures remain relatively high.

Here is data from the DEA (via the Tribune) for the last three years:

Pot seizure tallies

2013: 89 arrests; 113 illegal marijuana operations; 120,084 plants; 30 hash oil labs

2014: 129 arrests; 103 marijuana operations; 131,818 plants; 54 hash oil labs

2015: 115 arrests; 98 marijuana operations; 88,213 plants; 34 hash oil labs

The DEA's findings are just the latest criticism of pot farms' impacts. Pot farms in Northern California have been blamed for killing wildlife, including rare species. According to a report last year by NPR, growers plant their marijuana in remote locations, hoping to elude detection. The growers use rodenticide to kill the thirsty rodents that often chew on the flourishing, moist plants. Other animals, who prey on the poisoned rodents, become weakened or die, as well.

And just last month, researchers at the University of California released a study indicating that rat poisons increasingly pose a significant risk for California’s imperiled Pacific fishers, small forest-dwelling mammals that are protected under the California Endangered Species Act.

Pot farmers have also come under fire for using dangerous pesticides and having a high carbon footprint. But some in the industry have responded by developing the equivalent of an organic standard for weed (it can't be certified organic even in states where it's legal because it's still illegal at the federal level). And many in the industry are working to reduce their operations' impact.

At EcoWatch, we’ve reported that legalizing marijuana would help the industry operate in a more sustainable way. Legalization has gained major traction in recent years. Twenty-three states and Washington, DC currently have laws legalizing marijuana in some form, according to the website Governing. Four states—Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Colorado—and Washington, DC have legalized marijuana for both recreational and medical use.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders came out in favor of legalization in October and filed a Senate bill last month that would allow states to decide whether to legalize recreational use of marijuana and decriminalize the drug at the federal level.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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