LAS VEGAS -- Southern Nevada's dry climate hasn't stopped growers from cultivating water-intensive marijuana. In recent weeks, investigators have eradicated three marijuana grow operations in the Spring Mountains, and they suspect those won't be the last.
In recent years, indoor marijuana grow operations have sprouted like weeds, with 117 busted so far this year. But outdoor pot farms, like those routinely found on public lands in California, simply didn't exist in the desert -- or so everyone thought.
In mid-September, a multi-jurisdictional team made up of federal, state and local law enforcement cleared the second illegal marijuana grow operation from the rugged terrain of Mount Charleston. Two weeks later, a similar effort in Lovell Canyon, where the sheer number of plants -- nearly 10,000 of them -- required removal by air.
The outdoor pot fields have surprised law enforcement at every level says Kent Bitsko, the executive director of Nevada's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
"It snuck up on me. I didn't think we had the water up there in those mountains to grow the kind of gardens that they're doing," he said.
Unlike California, Utah and Washington, southern Nevada has no history of outdoor marijuana cultivation. So to target the unexpected threat, local investigators recently trained in California's prolific pot region, dubbed the Emerald Triangle.
"California has had so much success in eradication and prosecution that they're moving into Nevada and Utah and we can expect this is not a problem that is going away," said Bitsko.
The growers, believed to be Mexican nationals, tap into natural streams and springs to provide the required two gallons of water per day per mature plant. Prohibited pesticides, soil and water contamination, and erosion add to the long-term environmental concerns.
Short term however, Bitsko worries about resources. No one budgeted for weed removal in the desert.
"My understanding is $10,000 for air operations just for one grow and the manpower it takes to get up to those grows, and it's a pretty expensive endeavor. So we're trying to get some additional funding," he said.
To put southern Nevada's problem in perspective, according to Bitsko, law enforcement eradicated 10 million pot plants nationwide last year, with seven million of those in California. Nevada's take so far has been fewer than 15,000. That's not to say local police aren't concerned. These operations are run by drug trafficking organizations and often staffed by armed gardeners.