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California

Federal judge blocks ban on water deliveries for Asian pot farmers in Northern California

 
 

A federal judge has blocked a Northern California county’s ban on trucks delivering water to Hmong cannabis farmers, saying it raises “serious questions” about racial discrimination and leaves the growers without a source of water for basic sanitation, vegetable gardens and livestock.

On Friday, Chief U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller issued a temporary injunction against Siskiyou County’s prohibition on trucked-in water deliveries to Hmong farmers growing marijuana in the Mount Shasta Vista subdivision in the Big Springs area north of Weed.

“Without an injunction, the plaintiffs and other members of the Shasta Vista Hmong community will likely go without water for their basic needs and will likely lose more plants and livestock,” she wrote. “Fires may burn more homes. People may be forced to leave their homes and land behind without compensation.

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“The plaintiffs have also raised serious questions about their constitutional right to be free from racial discrimination.”

Over the last five years, hundreds of Hmong farmers have bought cheap land in the subdivision and erected hundreds of marijuana greenhouses on the lava-rock covered hillsides in violation of the county’s ban on commercial cannabis cultivation.

Authorities estimate there are 5,000 to 6,000 greenhouses growing pot in the Big Springs area, with as many as 4,000 to 8,000 people tending them, most of them Hmong and immigrants of Chinese descent.

Most of the parcels have no wells on site, so water the Hmong purchase from nearby farmers’ agricultural wells is delivered by truck to the grow sites where swimming pools and large portable tanks supply the greenhouses.

The expansion of the greenhouses led to complaints that local residential wells were going dry. At the same time, county law enforcement officials cited a rise in violent crime as well as illegal pesticides and fertilizers, piles of trash and raw sewage spills at the grows.

This spring, citing the need to protect residential wells and cut off the supply to the illegal grows, the county approved ordinances that prohibit selling well water without permits as well as water trucks on the roads leading to the subdivision. Deputies were aggressively pulling over anyone suspected of hauling water.

‘Racial animus’ at play?

The Hmong growers’ attorneys sued in federal court in Sacramento, alleging the ordinances were racially motivated and violated their civil rights.

Their attorneys alleged that by depriving the families tending the grows of water it choked off more than just the cannabis. The county also deprived those living in Shasta Vista of the means to bathe, tend vegetable gardens and keep their ducks, chickens and other livestock alive.

Mueller’s injunction Friday made it clear she believes the growers have a case to make that “the ordinances are motivated by racial animus” as their civil suit plays out. But the judge did leave in place a county ordinance that prohibits selling well water specifically for illegal cannabis cultivation. The injunction only covers water sales and deliveries for human needs such as bathing and gardening, said Allison Margolin, one of the attorneys for the Hmong.

Siskiyou County’s attorney, Edward Kiernan, didn’t immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday. In previous interviews, Siskiyou County officials denied their motivations were driven by race.

Mueller noted that the county does present its own compelling case that crime is on the rise.

“Violent crime in Shasta Vista has also spiked in recent years,” she wrote. “The Sheriff’s Office has responded to reports of armed robbery, assault, and murder. In just one recent week, a man was pistol-whipped and robbed, another was the target of gunshots fired by a neighbor, and six people were bound and robbed by gunmen wielding AK-47s. Few similar crimes were reported in Shasta Vista before illegal cannabis cultivation took hold.”

She also noted the sheriff’s arguments that living conditions are unsafe and that people have died in unpermitted structures after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning, as well as the grow sites contributing to environmental problems.

Greenhouses pepper the landscape north of Siskiyou County Road A-12 in a May 13, 2021, drone photo. For the last several years, many of the new illicit marijuana grows were attributed to residents of the Hmong community that had moved into the Mount Shasta Vista subdivision. Recently, however, community members say a separate group of Chinese growers have increased the visibility of activity in the area. Xavier Mascareñas xmascarenas@sacbee.com

But she said the county has other zoning and other laws on the books to enforce those issues without depriving the families of water.

“Shasta Vista residents might drink and bathe in unpotable water trucked into Shasta Vista from nearby agricultural wells, but the alternative is very little water or no water at all,” she wrote. “If potable water is in fact ready available, as the county claims … this order in no way prohibits officials from helping the people in Shasta Vista find and use that potable water.”

Lava Fire shooting investigated

Mueller also noted that while the county claims to be willing to issue permits for hauling water legally, Siskiyou County has made it clear that it wasn’t really interested in issuing them to the Hmong, many of whom don’t speak English well.

The forms are all written in English, and the county requires that anyone who signs an application must swear not to violate any county rules — which Mueller notes includes not having a proper water supply at their homes.

“Many people in the Shasta Vista Hmong community do not live in approved structures and do not have approved water sources, the very reason they would apply for a permit in the first place,” she wrote.

Hmong growers also argued that the ban on water deprives them of the ability to put out any fires that start in the subdivision.

In late June, a lightning strike sparked the Lava Fire nearby before burning through several parcels in the Mount Shasta Vista subdivision.

The Hmong in Shasta Vista accused firefighters of not bothering to try to put it out, blocking them from bringing their own water trucks so they could fight the fire themselves.

Hmong residents brought in their own water tank truck to help put out the hot sports at a burning marijuana farm during the Lava Fire on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, outside of Weed in Siskiyou County. Siskiyou County sheriff said officers shot and killed a man after he fired a gun at them near a large complex of cannabis farms threatened by the Lava Fire. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Local authorities disputed those charges and said the marijuana farmers blocked roads, threw rocks and forced Cal Fire crews to retreat from the scene.

The tensions became deadly when officers shot and killed a Hmong man who they say tried to drive through a fire checkpoint brandishing a gun.

County officials say the investigation into the shooting is ongoing. Authorities haven’t yet released the final report or any body camera or dash camera footage taken of the shooting.

Meanwhile, Mueller’s injunction takes effect immediately and will remain in place until the federal case concludes. No trial date has been scheduled.

Raza Lawrence, another of Hmong growers’ attorneys, said Tuesday that his clients hope Mueller’s injunction becomes permanent since it’s staving off a “humanitarian crisis” in Shasta Vista, but they’ll take what water they can get in the meantime.

“Now they can finally get back to living their lives like normal on their land,” he said.

 
 

This story was originally published September 07, 2021 1:05 PM.

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