Northern California marijuana growers will have to enroll in the nation's first regulatory program to monitor the impact of large-scale cultivation on groundwater supplies, state water officials said Thursday. The North Coast Regional Water Quality Board approved the marijuana monitoring program by 5-1 vote, for growers that produce large amounts of some of the world's most powerful weed, in Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma and other counties. Federal officials claimed this year that California pot has become so famous for its quality that some of the Mexican marijuana smuggling trade has reversed direction. Beginning in February 2016, affected growers will have to register with a third party and create a water resource protection plan, to protect groundwater and streams from contamination. Growers with operations larger than 2,000 square feet will be required to register with the water board and will be placed in one of three tiers, depending on the size of the farm. Water board members said the plan is not perfect, but it's a big first step toward monitoring wastewater discharges in an essentially unregulated system. "The adoption of this order is intended to address the harmful impacts and threat of devastation that unregulated cannabis cultivation can have on our fragile North Coast ecosystems," said Matt St. John, the executive officer of the regional water board. California was the first state to establish a medical marijuana program in 1996. Legal and illegal marijuana patches have mushroomed throughout the state, particularly in Northern California. The Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that marijuana cultivation increased by more than 55 percent from 2009 to 2012 and that each marijuana plant requires 900 gallons of water to grow to maturity. Environmentalists and state conservation agencies have accused large-scale operations of contaminating water supplies with pesticides and harsh chemicals. "This is a giant step forward in protecting North Coast water resources," said water board Chairman John Corbett chair. Faced with a ruinous drought, California officials have claimed that marijuana growers contribute to the problems by diverting water and damaging rural water quality. A typical 5,000 square-foot operation of 200 plants can use 180,000 gallons of water a year: enough to supply the needs of an average household for a year. In comparison, a typical Northern California golf course uses 140,000 gallons a day, according to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has testified at several water board meetings this year, asking for more money to fight and monitor illegal pot farms. Thursday's announcement did not outline a plan to fund enforcement of the monitoring program. The monitoring program will directly affect growers in the Emerald Triangle, a tri-county area with an estimated 10,000 marijuana patches. Marijuana is California's biggest cash crop. State officials estimate its annual value is $10 billion to 15 billion, not all of it, of course, reported or taxed. The program will create guidelines to address erosion, drainage and irrigation and minimize their environmental impacts. The water board received 47 public comments, many from farmers who said they would not enroll in such a program. Many legal growers oppose regulation because medical marijuana still violates federal law, and numerous operations have been bust. Federal agents raided Northern California Indian tribe's farm in July, seizing more than 12,000 plants in Modoc County. The tribe was growing plants in 40 greenhouses whose capacity was estimated at 60,000 plants. The water board's decision could affect other areas of the state. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board is working on a similar program and will vote on it in October. This story was authored by Nick Cahill and was originally published by Courthouse News Service, a nationwide news service for lawyers and the news media that focuses on civil litigation, from the date of filing through the appellate level. All told, Courthouse News provides coverage of more than 2,000 courts around the country, spanning all 50 states. Mr. Cahill is a Field Reporter at Courthouse News Service. COPYRIGHT © 2015 COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION.