Jul 192011

Seville’s 400 residents have lived years with tainted drinking water from their only well, but they say there is a new problem in town — water-hogging marijuana gardens.

The outdoor gardens planted in the last year are taking so much of the town’s water that it sometimes takes 45 minutes to fill the kitchen sink for dish washing, they say.

But it appears little can be done to fix the problem in this Tulare County community north of Visalia, Mark Grossi reports in the Fresno Bee.

Law enforcement authorities say the gardens are legal because the marijuana is for medicinal use, as allowed by state law. Sheriff’s deputies can take immediate action only if they see criminal activity, such as sales.

“These pot gardens are the talk of the town,” says resident Rebecca Quintana. “We already have problems, but the water pressure has really dropped. And we’re worried about our children.”

The marijuana gardens are the latest in a long run of water issues for this farmworker town.

Bankruptcy closed the town’s water company a few years ago, forcing the county to take over the system. Residents already had suffered for more than a decade with the crumbling, contaminated system. Now, it may take years to secure funding to fix it.

Meantime, Seville made headlines in March when a United Nations team visited to investigate dirty tap water as part of a worldwide campaign to make healthy water a basic human right.

The U.N. investigator saw that broken pipes allow sand to pour into people’s sinks, showers and toilets. The water also is tainted with chemicals from rotting plants, septic systems and fertilizers. Many people buy bottled water.

Low water pressure now adds to the misery, residents say. They say the problem coincides with the arrival of marijuana gardens on previously vacant lots.

Tulare County resource officials, who supervise Seville’s water system, say they have no proof the gardens are affecting water pressure.

County officials say there are no water meters in Seville to track where the water is going, so they don’t know if the gardens are causing a problem.

The half-century-old piping in Seville has many leaks that could affect water pressure.

County officials add that the owners of legal marijuana gardens are no different than residents watering vegetable gardens. Residents counter that most vegetable gardens in their town don’t have up to 99 plants, as marijuana garden owners are allowed under the law.

Residents complained to the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department about the gardens, hoping authorities would close them or move them indoors. But deputies are waging a losing battle to enforce county rules intended to make garden owners keep the plants indoors.

The county district attorney will not prosecute garden owners under the county rules, saying state law trumps them.

State lawmakers passed a bill in 2003 allowing residents with a doctor’s recommendation and a state identification card to obtain or grow medicinal marijuana. Tulare County began issuing the identification cards three years ago. State law says nothing about keeping the gardens indoors, DA officials said.

Still, the Sheriff’s Department has investigated three of the Seville marijuana gardens and warned the owners that their crop violates county rules because it is not being grown indoors. Two of the three have been dismantled, authorities say. Deputies say they have found two more outdoor gardens.

In rural areas around the county, there are hundreds of such gardens — most unknown to authorities, sheriff’s deputies said. People with the proper state identification card can grow marijuana in unincorporated areas of Tulare County without telling anyone. In addition to requiring that the crop be kept indoors, the county rules say there should be no odor coming from the gardens.

In Seville, schoolchildren know where the gardens are because of the smell, said Chris Kemper, superintendent-principal of the Stone Corral Elementary School, the only school in town. He said he has smelled the plants.

“It’s shocking,” he said. “These things are popping up like mushrooms.”

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