Cannabis and residential groundwater pumping impacts on streamflow and ecosystems in Northern California


Cannabis is an emerging agricultural frontier, but due to its quasi-legal status its environmental impacts are poorly understood. Where cannabis is irrigated by groundwater, pumping can lead to streamflow depletion in surrounding streams which may impair other water users or aquatic ecosystems. Here, we investigate the impacts of groundwater pumping for cannabis irrigation at the scale of the watershed, the individual well, and the stream segment, and contextualize by comparing with residential groundwater use. Combining mapped cannabis cultivation and residential structure locations with grower reports of irrigation water sources, we develop distributed estimates of groundwater pumping and associated streamflow depletion caused by cannabis and residential users within the Navarro River Watershed in Northern California (USA). An estimated 73% of cannabis cultivation sites and 92% of residential structures in the watershed rely on groundwater, and groundwater abstraction leads to streamflow depletion during late summer when groundwater is a critical source of baseflow to ecologically important streams. However, streamflow depletion caused by cannabis cultivation is dwarfed by the impacts of residential use, which causes >5 times as much streamflow depletion and is concentrated close to ecologically important stream segments. Focusing on cannabis, a small number of wells (50%), and significant predictors for impacts of a well are the annual pumping rate, the distance to the closest stream, and the transmissivity between the well and the stream. Streamflow depletion increases nonlinearly when pumping occurs within 1.2 km of streams, and most cannabis and residential groundwater use is within this critical distance. Given the rapid increase in cannabis cultivation, these results indicate that potential streamflow depletion from groundwater irrigation of cannabis is a current and future concern, and will be superimposed on top of significant depletion already occurring due to residential use in the region studied.

Environmental Research Communications
Sam Zipper
HEAL@KGS PI; Assistant Scientist

I specialize in ecohydrology and hydrogeology of agricultural and urban landscapes.