Terrain magazine shows how the cozy-sounding northern California agriculture scene is drying up watersheds and poisoning the landscape, all to bring people their drug of choice. Installment one on the boom in illegal water rustling for wineries starts like this:

After one of the rainiest years on record — when parts of the valley had been flooded — Anderson Creek, a tributary of the Navarro River, was dry. “It was as if we were in a drought year,” says Hall, a member of Friends of the Navarro River … But it was no drought. Hall says he observed trucks filling up water from along the creek at Golden Eye and taking it into the town of Philo and other areas where Anderson Valley’s growing population of vintners cultivate their grapes.

Worse, lots of these trucks have no legal right to take that water, but enforcement is proving very problematic.

As unkind as this is to the critters who live in the region’s rivers, witness the landscape-wide destruction being wrought in rural areas by the illegal cultivation of marijuana, California’s largest cash crop:

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman tells this story about a family in Piercy. It’s becoming more common in the new climate of large-scale illegal grows, indoors and out. The quiet-seeking family listened to generators running day and night, smelled diesel exhaust, and learned more about bad installations than they ever hope to know: The grower used a polymer tank connected to the generators with PVC pipe and wire clamp connectors. Neither the tank nor the pipe and fittings are rated to hold petroleum products. The Hazardous Materials unit ends up at situations like this, and landowners are responsible for the clean-up costs. Assuming there is a landowner. Often grows happen on remote tribal, BLM, or national forest lands, and taxpayers foot the bill.

According to a 2006 report by Dr. Jon B. Gettman of Shepherd University, California leads the nation in indoor and outdoor marijuana production. It is the state’s largest cash crop, generating nearly $14 billion, more than grapes, vegetables, and hay combined. Moreover, production has increased ten-fold in the last 25 years. Much of that production takes place in marginal and remote areas, where ATVs power up hills to tiny outcrops, generators thunder day and night, and water trucks suck water out of tiny creeks.

And illegal outdoor growers have a nasty habit of leaving poisoned baits around to kill any four-leggeds that might try to eat the plants. When these newly toxic critters totter off and die, scavengers like vultures, hawks, and coyotes share the collateral damage.

Obviously, these are no sweet, hippie-dippy operations. Most are run by violent, armed gangs bent on big profits, and the plants are managed by packs of individuals in areas so remote they have to be ferried in via helicopter. Hikers beware.

Interestingly, legal medical marijuana operations are described by an official in the article as environmentally benign. But where’s the sanity in the number of wineries being allowed in this often dry region? How much more California wine does the world really need?