Los Angeles-area authorities seized more than 370,000 marijuana plants and harvested product with an estimated street value of $1 billion, officials said Wednesday.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said 131 people were arrested and 33 guns were taken in the 10-day operation in Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles. In addition to the marijuana plants, more than 33,480 pounds of harvested marijuana, or more than 16 tons, were also seized, it said.
As big as the effort involving hundreds of law enforcement officers was, authorities reached only about 40 percent of the illegal grows officials identified, which highlights the scope of the problem that officials said was linked to organized drug trafficking groups.
"The second week of the operation, the first week — they were already trying to rebuild the grows," Sheriff Alex Villanueva said at a news conference.
California voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2016, and the first sales began in 2018.
"This is not a war on the legal cannabis business in California," said U.S. Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif.
The growers in the Antelope Valley, which is in a high desert area, have been stealing water from hydrants and using illegal wells; using toxic and banned chemicals and dumping them where they poison the environment; and some are armed, officials said.
The area is home to protected species including Mohave ground squirrel and desert tortoise and the iconic Joshua Tree.
Growers cut down the trees to make room for greenhouses, have blocked streams and polluted water with trash and pesticides, said Chloe Hakim, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"There's a lot of important critical species that are out there that need their habitat to thrive and to survive," she said.
Officials shut down 205 of around 500 illegal grows that had been identified from the air, Villanueva said. The marijuana was destroyed.
Of the arrests, 22 were on felony counts but the rest were on misdemeanor allegations, the sheriff said. The district attorney will make charging decisions.