Image of dropping water levels in a reservoir

Water isn’t getting any easier to find in parched Western U.S. states, so outdoor marijuana and hemp producers are looking for solutions that will help them get through the season.

Even when the West isn’t embroiled in a record drought year, water use is often restricted for cannabis cultivators, said Julie Jacobson, CEO of Aster Farms, a craft marijuana operation in Upper Lake, California.

“For example, water diversions during the exact months of the outdoor grow season are prohibited,” Jacobson told MJBizDaily. She added there could be additional restrictions this fall because of the drought.

Cannabis producers’ drive to conserve water comes as federal land managers this year declared a first-ever shortage on the Colorado River, potentially curbing water allowances in the Southwest.

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Water-retention ponds

Two years ago, Aster Farms installed a water-retention pond, which is important for water quality as well as storage, Jacobson said.

“Our main water supply for cultivation is a well. But, like many wells in the region, we have to manage our boron levels,” she said.

“The pure spring water that we store in our ag pond is able to be used to dilute our irrigation water and leach our field.”

Even with water-retention ponds, growers are limited by how much they can use, both by the physical capacity of the pond and the permitted allowance to divert water from the spring on-site.

“This is one of the many ways the state is able to monitor and protect the greater watershed for everyone,” Jacobson said.

Aster Farms’ retention pond holds 400,000 gallons, but it’s permitted to pull water from the spring for just under that amount, she added. The farm grows outdoors, in the ground, so the water goes back to the water table.

Aster Farms uses drip irrigation but has experimented with down-spray sprinklers this year to add nutrients. The irrigation system connects to the pond and the well, Jacobson said.

The retention pond cost approximately $20,000.

“We haven’t saved costs by installing the pond, but it has enabled us to have enough water to grow our plants” without buying water from a delivery service, which can be pricey, Jacobson said.

Underground storage

For smaller growers, low-tech options can be less expensive while just as efficient.

Tina Gordon, founder and owner of Moon Made Farms, a 40-acre regenerative marijuana farm and education center in Humboldt County, California, was facing an issue with watering companion border plants that bring biodiversity to its garden.

Gordon found a solution this spring in porous clay pots, an ancient technology used in arid and semi-arid environments.

The porous ceramic pots are buried neck-deep underground, with the openings above the soil, then filled with water, which slowly releases into the soil over several days.

The method is reputedly up to 10 times more efficient than surface irrigation and even more efficient than drip irrigation.

Gordon’s farm uses 80-ounce irrigation pots, which cover an area up to 3 feet in diameter, or containers with up to 30 gallons of soil. The farm uses the pots in two south-facing hillside gardens, and 50 plants are grown from seed in each garden.

“We buried 100 pots in the ground in between our cannabis plants, and they integrated beautifully with the synergy in the gardens,” Gordon said.

At $40 per pot, Gordon said, water use and cost for pots and drip irrigation was about the same.

“The difference is that these pots will last hundreds of years, whereas poly drip systems degrade and parts break over time,” she said.

The clay pots are filled twice a week, compared with hand-watering every other day, Gordon said. The pots supplement the farm’s existing water-catchment ponds and irrigation system and have saved the small farm thousands of gallons of water.

“I think this is a great supplemental system, an excellent solution for small farms (under) an acre and gardeners,” Gordon said.

“For a cannabis farm integrating regenerative techniques to increase biodiversity, it’s proven a great way to grow companion plants with substantial water savings.”

Less water-intensive crops

In Nevada, hemp producers are also relying on water-retention ponds with elevation-based irrigation and buried water cisterns, said Marysia Morawska, a horticulture extension agent with the University of Nevada, Reno.

But growers need to consider the ecosystem before deciding on how to store water, she said.

Water cisterns could affect soil quality, and they tend to be labor-intensive and expensive to bury. But, if cisterns are located in a region where rainwater collection is allowed, farms can be more efficient.

Water storage and irrigation systems are never going to be the same across the diverse growing regions of the U.S., Morawska said, but what’s most important is for producers to prioritize water use and storage that work in their area.

Rather than focusing on flower or cannabinoid varieties that require more water, hemp producers in drought-stricken states might want to consider switching their focus to hemp for grain and fiber or other less water-intensive crops, Morawska said.

“We do want the farmers who know how to farm to be able to survive, doing what they’ve done for the last hundred years here, (but) doing it agriculturally in a way that’s actually sustainable,” she said. “We don’t have to start from their land and reinvent it.”

Don’t be afraid to experiment in the quest to find what brings the most success, Morawska said.

“I encourage people to work with their family land, go find what grows appropriately for your region, with the climate you have. And if you’re in Nevada or somewhere where it’s taking this ridiculous amount of water where your water rights don’t supply it, maybe you’re not growing the right genetics.

“Maybe you need to go back to the basics and really think about the full picture and do what works for you based on what you’ve been given, rather than trying to just chase the dollar.”

Laura Drotleff can be reached at laura.drotleff@hempindustrydaily.com.