ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – As New Mexico heads toward a potentially devastating fire season, there’s a threat to to the state’s public lands that may come as a surprise.
People are illegally growing marijuana, hiding the plants deep within national forests and public lands. The plants are stealing precious water the state desperately needs.
The growers are using extensive watering systems.
“The way they get the water here in the Southwest is they typically tap into streams and other water sources that may be out there in the national forest,” said Robin Poague, special agent in charge at the U.S. Forest Service in Albuquerque.
For example: a group of growers tapped into a stream in the Frijoles Canyon in Bandelier National Monument two and a half years ago to feed 10,000 plants worth an estimated $10 million. They laid at least a quarter mile of tubing from the stream to a huge marijuana plantation growing in Bandelier.
“It can be miles. Sometimes they use a gravity-fed system so the water flows downhill into the grow,” Poague told KRQE News 13. “Other times we’ve seen them use pumps out there as well to pump the water up a hill to water the plants.”
Growers also build tanks for the water, which can hold tens of thousands of gallons. Authorities found a holding tank next to the grow site in Bandelier.
“We think they were filling this with water and then using it to water from,” Superintendent Jason Lott said when authorities busted the grow in 2011.
The Forest Service says in the Southwest Region, which covers New Mexico and Arizona, agents have found more than 30,000 pot plants since 2010.
“I don’t think there’s any area of our national forest that are immune from the cultivation of marijuana,” Poague said.
Stealing water dries out trees and brush. That increases fire danger, which already is high in the region as drought conditions have worsened in recent years.
And marijuana plants are thirsty, requiring substantial water to thrive.
The Forest Service estimates that each plant uses five gallons of water a day. That adds up to more than 3,700 gallons a month. That’s just for the plants authorities found.
The Forest Service says that number could easily double if agents found all the illegal plantations they believe are out there.
“The ground here is very porous, and so when … the plant is watered out there, the water typically flows right through,” Poague said.
The marijuana growers also strip the land and add harsh fertilizers to the ground. Combined with the water drain, that changes the region’s ecosystem for years to come, officials said.
“The recovery time for that landscape after it’s been impacted by this type of illegal activity can take years, if not decades,” Poague said.