California readies landmark water rules for cannabis cultivators

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By Bart Schaneman

California is preparing landmark water regulations for the state’s marijuana growers to safeguard the environment and encourage conservation.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture is drafting the water-use rules, which are expected to increase growers’ paperwork and costs in areas such as water storage.

Nevertheless, industry officials welcome the move, which is expected to require up to 50,000 growers to get permits to use irrigation water.

The regulations represent one of the first times a state has attempted to oversee water used for legal marijuana cultivation, which is expected to grow in California in coming years – particularly if voters approve adult-use cannabis next month.

Casey O’Neill, acting board chair for the California Growers Association, said “encouraging farmers to store more water and limit their use” is a step in the right direction.

“Nobody’s a fan of regulation. But at the end of the day, industrial agriculture has not worked on the landscape. It’s damaging. It’s denigrating,” O’Neill added. “As they draft new rules for this industry, they’re sort of getting a crack at what they’d really like to do to Big Ag.”

Part of the licensing process

The rules, which stem from a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in June, will be released in 2017 and incorporated into the state food and agriculture department’s licensing process for marijuana growers in January 2018.

In addition to managing growers’ use of irrigation water, the new law, SB 837, is intended to protect the state’s water quality and wildlife habitat.

The measure – which fleshes out California’s 2015 medical marijuana regulatory act – also will allow cannabis growers to store water for the first time. Initial indications suggest cultivators will have to spend money on water storage equipment such as tanks, as well as regulatory red tape, among other things. The exact costs will depend on the wording of the final rules.

Under SB 837, growers will be able to get small irrigation permits. The permits will allow cultivators to store up to 6 acre-feet of water during high stream flows for use when supplies are scarce. An acre-foot is equivalent to one foot of water covering an acre of land, or about 326,000 gallons.

Water use in the West

Water use will be an ongoing issue in the marijuana industry – particularly in the West, where supplies are limited in states such as Arizona, California, Colorado and Nevada. A mature marijuana plant consumes an estimated six gallons of water per day.

In California, some large-scale marijuana operations have dried up streams and decimated wildlife populations, according to a 2015 report from the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The new rules will direct the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Fish and Wildlife to create a task force to assess environmental damage from marijuana cultivation.

In addition, applicants for cultivation licenses will need to identify the source of their water, among other requirements, and apply for a permit from California’s new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation.

The permitting process won’t apply to individual patients growing medical marijuana for their own use on 100 square feet or less, or caregivers growing for five patients or less on no more than 500 square feet.

The state’s food and agriculture department, meanwhile, is preparing an environmental impact report to give local and state government agencies information about the potential environmental effects linked to new statewide MMJ cultivation regulations.

New model for agriculture

“We’re going to have to figure out more efficient and effective methodologies for interacting with the ecosystem,” said O’Neill, of the California Growers Association. “I would definitely see this as a model, or a new paradigm, for 21st century agriculture.”

Matt Cohen, founder and CEO of TriQ Systems – an Oregon-based industrial greenhouse engineering firm serving cannabis growers – has operated many different MMJ businesses in California. He said he sees a lot more water being used on crops other than cannabis.

“Fair’s fair as long as cannabis growers are being regulated the same as other growers,” Cohen said.

Cohen added that a lot of the water issues reflect illegal marijuana grows. Modern, legal grows have their water use dialed in to make it as efficient as possible, Cohen said.

To that point, O’Neill added that the California Growers Association has been encouraging the transition to drip irrigation, heavy mulching and other water conservation practices.

“A lot of producers are already doing a pretty good job of not using tremendous amounts of water,” he said. “In terms of the amount of water the industry uses, it’s a drop in the bucket compared with overall agriculture industries.”

Still, O’Neill doesn’t make much of the argument that the water regulations fairly or unfairly target marijuana producers.

“To me, the subject is kind of a moot point,” O’Neill said. “There’s a lot of people who want to get fired up about that. This has not been treated as a normal agricultural product ever. Not in 75-80 years. That’s all part of the whole prohibition arena. We’re not going to be treated like all other ag. It’s going to take time to get there.”

Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, views the water regulations as a way to foster commerce with a conscience. He thinks an economy becomes unsustainable when water consumption and use get out of balance.

“We’re using more water than we have,” he said. “Great civilizations rise and fall on how they manage water.”

Allen sees cannabis cultivation as a good example of how a developing industry can transition to sustainable agriculture.

“It’s a unique opportunity to do something better,” he said.

Bart Schaneman can be reached at