Healing Humboldt Watersheds

With CDFW Cannabis Restoration Grants

By Hollie Ernest 


While Humboldt is on the forefront of sustainable and environmentally friendly cannabis farming, the scars of harmful, illegal operations can linger long after they’re shut down, sometimes on public lands. Water diversion and pollutants can damage soil, rivers and fish for years to come. But thanks to a recent round of funding, the county is getting a boost in its efforts to restore crucial watersheds. 

In April of 2021, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife solicited grant proposals for watershed remediation and enhancement projects. Through CDFW’s Cannabis Restoration Grant Program there were $2 million ready to allocate to worthy recipients. This money comes from the tax paid on cannabis products through California’s Environmental Restoration and Protection Account. According to Maggie Massie, senior Environmental Scientist at CDFW, the tax “created a dedicated funding source that is continuous appropriation, to focus for the first five years on the cleanup, remediation, and restoration of environmental damage and watersheds affected by cannabis cultivation and related activities.” This is a time of environmental reckoning with past cannabis cultivation, including the use of water diversion and pesticides, and these grants are crucial to restoring what has been degraded for decades. Public agencies, nonprofits and tribal governments are all eligible for the grants.

After receiving seven proposals, CDFW awarded $966,649 to four exciting projects. “These awards ensure California’s vital biodiversity in priority watersheds is being enhanced and protected,” said Jeremy Valverde, CDFW’s Cannabis Program director. The approved projects vary in scope and concept. “We are committed to working with organizations of all sizes to support a variety of remediation projects that improve and sustain California’s delicate ecosystems throughout the state,” said Valverde.

The Watershed Research and Training Center based in Hayfork received $172,691 to treat road sediment in the Barker Creek watershed. Barker Creek is northeast of Hayfork and drains into Hayfork Creek, which eventually runs into the South Fork of the Trinity River, a vital home for salmon, among other wildlife. The funds will be used to collect baseline data, develop plans and implement projects to reduce sediment impacts to anadromous fish populations in the watershed. 

Before and after photos of cannabis restoration projects at Shasta County watersheds. Courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Integral Ecology Research Center (IERC) in Blue Lake will use a $388,855 grant to work with other local groups to remove trash, active water diversions, environmental contaminants and old infrastructure from illegal grow sites on public land. This project includes sites in Monterey and Trinity County. In 2017, IERC, whose stated goal is the “remediation and restoration of every last illegal cultivation site that remains,” was awarded a grant through the Cannabis Restoration Grant Program to remove refuse from 100 illegal grows on public land. Its efforts removed 148,000 pounds of trash, 727,000 feet of irrigation pipe, 83,000 pounds of fertilizer and 1,000 pounds of concentrated pesticide. 

Another grant went to the Salmonid Restoration Federation, based in Eureka. The amount of $277,936 will go towards designing, permitting and implementing a water storage and augmentation system for Redwood Creek in Humboldt County. The project will take place on a 1,000-acre parcel recently purchased by Lost Coast Forestland, where approximately 7 million gallons of wet season overflow will be stored in ponds. The water will supplement summer dry season flows in upper Redwood Creek, where it has been “bone dry, summer after summer,” according to Dana Stolzman, executive director of SRF. Forested waterways like Redwood Creek comprise some of the best coho salmon habitats in Northern California and, with enhanced flow, refugia for juvenile coho can be restored. This project is one of several working to “meet our target flow goal of 50 gallons per minute and flow augmentation from the headwaters to the confluence,” said Stolzman. 

↓ Redwood Creek, one of the Humboldt watersheds receiving funding via the CDFW’s Cannabis Restoration Grant Program. Photo by Eric Hongisto

The Wildlife Conscious Certification received $127,167, to be administered by the Humboldt State University Sponsored Programs Foundation, a university-adjacent nonprofit whose main role is to administer externally-funded grants. With those funds, the WCC will conduct an 18-month pilot project that aims to “establish the WCC, refine its criteria with input from stakeholders and experts, install wildlife enhancements on four demonstration farms and monitor wildlife response,” said Matt Johnson, HSU wildlife professor and co-director of the project. It will continue to use scientifically based management practices to inform certification criteria as the project evolves. The long-term vision for WCC is to become a voluntary certification that verifies and encourages farmers’ best practices toward wildlife conservation. 

In addition to these four grant recipients, CDFW announced in August of 2021 that it is accepting concept proposals for its Qualified Cultivator Funding Opportunity until Dec. 1, 2022 and accepting full applications until April 2023. This program will distribute funds for increased cleanup, remediation and restoration “that may be unaffordable for many smaller cultivators, and also promote environmentally sustainable practices,” said Valverde. These funds are not given directly to cultivators but can be acquired through eligible organizations, such as nonprofits, government agencies or tribes. (Read more about Qualified Cultivator Funding at www.wildlife.ca.gov/cannabisgrants.) 

We can’t gloss over or ignore the past, but we can acknowledge that the destructive ramifications of illicit cannabis continue to run into our creeks and rivers, affecting entire watersheds, fish populations, soil health, upland and lowland areas. Combating these elusive and ruinous methods can seem daunting, but with funding comes action. When licensed cannabis is economically successful, it means increased revenue for ecological restoration. It’s time to let Northern California’s magnificent and unique watersheds heal. 


Hollie Ernest (she/her) is a botanist and forestry technician. She is writing a book about her international bike adventures, gardening and exploring the corners of Northern California. Follow her on Instagram @Hollie_holly.