As Oregon’s marijuana industry emerges from the legal shadows, growers are being confronted with regulatory hurdles regarding irrigation, experts say.
When cultivation of the psychoactive crop was criminal under state law, compliance with water rules was not the top-of-mind worry for growers.
Those who now want to participate in the legal marketplace for recreational marijuana, however, are finding that irrigation can pose an unexpected complication.
To qualify for commercial marijuana-growing licenses, growers will face the same issues with water rights as conventional farmers as well as problems that are unique to the crop, which remains illegal under federal law.
Earlier this year, aspiring hemp and marijuana producer Andrew Anderson of Bend, Ore., was notified by his local irrigation district that federal authorities refused to allow their facilities to be used to deliver water for cannabis production.
Anderson said he hopes the matter will be resolved over time, but in the mean time he’s drilling a agricultural well to ensure he can irrigate his crop.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get a chance to be part of an industry that goes from nothing to a giant conglomerate in a lifetime,” he said.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates some water projects in the West, has said it doesn’t intend to become an “enforcer” of federal cannabis prohibitions, but it remains to be seen how marijuana and hemp production is treated by the agency, said April Snell, executive director of the Oregon Water Resources Congress, which represents irrigation districts.
Each irrigation district in Oregon is likely to have a different perspective on cannabis production, particularly depending on how reliant they are on federal facilities, Snell said at a recent cannabis workshop in Salem, Ore.
“They are like snowflakes. From a distance they may look the same but up close they all have their own characteristics,” she said.
Cannabis growers can apply for their own water right to divert surface water for irrigation or use land with an existing water right — just like other farmers, they’re subject to shut offs due to water calls from senior water rights holders, said Doug Woodcock, administrator of the Oregon Water Resources Department’s field services division.
“Know your water rights,” Woodcock said, noting that the right is specific as to the place and type of use.
Drilling a well also requires a water rights permit for agriculture in Oregon, though exemptions apply for domestic, industrial and commercial uses.
However, those “exempt” uses do not apply to growing a crop, such as marijuana, for profit, Woodcock said. “Irrigation is not part of the commercial exemption.”
Medical marijuana growers often don’t face such restrictions on groundwater because they produce the crop for personal use or cultivate it for others without an intent to profit, he said.
Commercial cannabis growers who want to cultivate the crop inside a warehouse or another property within a city can also buy water from the municipality, he said.
At this point, though, 29 cities and 10 counties in Oregon have decided not to allow marijuana production within their boundaries, while others remain undecided, said Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, who is a land use attorney.
People who want to grow marijuana in those undecided areas should become involved in the conversation with their local governments, he said. “The best place to start is the local planning department.”
In counties that do allow marijuana production, only “exclusive farm use” zones allow the crop to be grown outright, said Katherine Daniels, farm and forest lands specialist for the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.
Whether the crop can be commercially grown without restriction in industrial, commercial and residential zones will likely vary county-by-county, she said.