Illegal marijuana operations are spreading fast in the Southern California desert, now numbering well over a thousand.
Nearby neighbors say they're being terrorized, as operators go to extremes to build and guard their "grows."
After a pit bull attack in late 2019, one couple from Twentynine Palms is wondering why local leaders won’t take the one step that could cut off the grower’s life line.
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“I knew there was a weed farm, a marijuna farm, up the road, and I knew they had pit bulls, but I didn't think much of it,” Amy Tessier said. “As I ran by, one of the pit bulls came charging out from behind the fence and just lunged and bit my legs. It was a really traumatic experience.”
That attack led Tessier and her husband Jeff Taylor to take a closer look at what was happening around them in the city.
"I realized, as time went by and we started to see more hoop buildings and more illegal grows popping up that, I was like, 'Wait a minute, this actually isn’t legal,'" Tessier said.
"Large berms are created in an effort to hide from law enforcement, and hide their activities from neighbors," Taylor explained as he took News4 on a tour of the area.
He pointed out dozens of what the sheriff's department confirms are illegal operations in this part of San Bernardino County, where growing marijuana remains against the law despite the passage of Prop. 64.
That proposition legalized pot in California, but also changed illegal cultivation from a felony to a misdemeanor, with fines of only $500.
“I’ve had people cry to me how they’re terrified, there are grows right next door to them,” Tessier said.
The community is coming together to fight back, charting and reporting these illegal farms to law enforcement. Their "Dragon One Community Watch" drone has captured images of more than 120 of these operations.
“I’m not scared anymore, I’m angry,” Tessier said. “I want to protect our community for them, for my children, for all the people in this community."
"It's a huge problem, and I don’t think everyone grasps the magnitude of it.”
There are some typical signs of illegal operations, the community group has learned, One sign is hoop houses where the marijuana is grown, often behind fences covered in dark fabric.
In Twentynine Palms, city water is often readily available near other signs of the operations.
"You can see that this location is being supplied by city water because there is a municipal water box right there on the property," Taylor said, pointing out various grow sites since busted by law enforcement. "And that's how this pot farm was being fed by city water."
Twentynine Palms Water District is looking into ways to do something about those illegal growers legally pulling water into their systems.
“I think one of the things we’ve done is gone to members of the legislature in order to seek legislation that would allow us to deny service, based on some of these practices in these remote areas,” said Adan Ortega, spokesperson for the Twentynine Palms Water District.
But cutting off the water supply is complicated, he said, citing health and safety. Neighbors have expressed concern that these illicit operations are draining the water supply, but Ortega says that's not the case.
"There’s been such water use reductions since the end of the last drought and that has not occurred."
The district provided documents to the I-Team, comparing 2013 to 2020, which show a decline in gallons used. Ortega maintains cutting off supply could create bigger problems.
"In cases where the service is cut off, some of those folks will go and steal it," Ortega said. "They will steal it by rupturing a pipeline in a remote area and by inserting a valve to divert the water."
It's an argument that annoys Taylor and Tessier.
"They’re in the business of water and their business is booming right now," she said.
San Bernardino County now officially counts more than a thousand illegal grow operations, and the sheriff's department suspects there are hundreds more, making it difficult for law enforcement to keep up.
"A state of emergency from the state level would absolutely provide resources for us," said San Bernardino County Supervisor Dawn Rowe.
"It could be funding, it could be manpower, it could be help with the legal system."
Tessier thinks the solutions should be easier to come by.
"We all know California has a lot of laws and lots of rules, right?" she said. "So let’s use the rules and laws and the fines that they charge all these nice tax paying citizens, and let’s start putting those on the people that are breaking the rules."
Until then, the community of Twentynine Palms is meticulously tracking these illegal operations, sharing images and coordinates with the San Bernardino County Marijuana Enforcement Team. Together, they’re determined to protect the desert for generations to come.