Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
More medical cannabis plants are being grown in New Mexico than ever before.
But two rural water systems in Sandoval County say the crop may be depleting local water supplies, and they say they have been left powerless to stop it.
The Peña Blanca Water and Sanitation District and Sile Mutual Domestic Water and Sewer Association sent a letter last month to state agencies and legislators describing their concerns.
The Sile water system serves 154 people west of the Rio Grande between Cochiti and Kewa pueblos. The Peña Blanca system is responsible for delivering water to 448 people on the east side of the river between the same pueblos.
An average household in the Peña Blanca system uses about 3,000 gallons of water a month, said district president John Gurule.
A cannabis farm with greenhouses in Peña Blanca that began operating last year is logging 20,000 gallons of domestic water use per month.
The board members say the increases could point to treated drinking water being used for cannabis irrigation.
“The (cannabis) companies may think that the water rights were already taken care of when they purchased the property,” Gurule said. “We see the potential for these farms to bring economic growth to a rural community, so how do we support that growth while bringing water to our residents?”
New Mexico legalized medical cannabis in 2007. Domestic well water may not be used for agriculture in the state. Farmers must irrigate cannabis or other crops with another water source by acquiring a valid water right.
The water system representatives say New Mexico’s patchwork of medical cannabis regulations has not kept up with the increased strain on rural water supplies.
The groups are asking that all producers applying for a medical cannabis license prove a valid water right for commercial agriculture with the Office of the State Engineer.
John Romero, director of the Water Rights Division and the Resources Allocation Program for the Office of the State Engineer, said the affected mutual domestic water systems have a history of poor infrastructure, limited revenue, too many connections and water overuse. The increase in cannabis production and alleged improper water use may be exacerbating those issues.
“Cannabis hasn’t helped this situation. It is illegal to use domestic well water for agriculture, but it is up to (Sile and Peña Blanca) to enforce that,” Romero said. “We can’t police every mutual domestic water association, but we will work with them and help to see if these properties have a valid water right for what they want to do.”
The state Engineer’s Office confirms when a water right was issued and decides whether the proposed water use impairs the community or is detrimental to water conservation.
Journal calls to medical cannabis companies that grow crops in the Sile and Pe ñ a Blanca areas were not returned.
Kathleen Groody, a member of the Sile water system board, said they have been unlucky in confronting the cannabis farms about their alleged water overuse.
“This is probably happening throughout the state. Our only option is to turn the water off, but the facilities are required to have security, sometimes even armed guards, so we can’t get in to read the meter,” Groody said. “We sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter to the address listed on the license, but it was returned, and we can’t contact anyone else. We can’t get a sheriff to accompany us on the property because there hasn’t been a court order issued.”
Groody said the Sile system has used more than 3 million gallons of water over its allotted amount, due to overpumping for agriculture and leaks in the system.
The New Mexico Department of Health issues patient and producer licenses for the Medical Cannabis Program. Health Department data shows that in May, there were 68,000 medical cannabis plants in the state and 104 licensed producers.
Health Department spokesperson David Morgan told the Journal that cannabis producers do not currently have to disclose water rights or water management practices when applying for a license.
The state Engineer’s Office treats cannabis as an agricultural crop. But the New Mexico Department of Agriculture doesn’t mention cannabis in its 2018 report of crops grown in New Mexico. The department regulates hemp cultivation as mandated in last year’s federal farm bill but has no authority when it comes to medical cannabis production.
“NMDA regulates agronomic crops until the point of harvest,” a department spokesperson told the Journal in an email. “Medical cannabis is not considered a traditional agronomic crop, which is why its regulation falls under the New Mexico Department of Health.”
Gurule said the water systems have not had an issue with local hemp producers overusing water.
In March, the health department increased the number of cannabis plants that producers could grow. Four growers in Sandoval County increased their plants from 450 to 2,500 plants before the limit was reset this summer to 1,750 plants.
If mutual domestic well systems are used to water marijuana, they cannot receive federal infrastructure improvement money or water from the Bureau of Reclamation, because the plant is a federally controlled substance.
“ We come from resource-poor communities, and many people have private domestic wells,” Gurule said. “We don’t have the infrastructure to move the quantity of water that (the farms) need.”
Reliable data on cannabis water use is limited. Water experts attribute that gap to the decades-long legal debate over the crop, which has prevented federal or state funding of credible research.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife found that one cannabis plant grown outdoors consumes as much as 6 gallons of water every day. A coalition of California cannabis growers refutes that number, saying the plants each demand about 2 gallons of water per day.
As New Mexico eyes legalization of recreational marijuana, the state is preparing to balance water interests.
The Cannabis Regulation Act was introduced in the 2019 state legislative session. The bill squeaked by in the House but died in the Senate.
“ It’s important that legislation create a robust framework to deal with these important issues that currently doesn’t exist,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of last year’s proposed Cannabis Regulation Act. “Ju st like any other agricultural or manufacturing product or process in existence today, rules, standards and environmental protections must be established and applied to all licensees to ensure compliance, and to safeguard our natural resources l ike water.”
New Mexico isn’t alone in charting new territory for cannabis and water use. Each state that legalized production of the plant started with few guidelines to address the increased demand for water.
Oregon, which legalized medical marijuana in 1998 and recreational marijuana in 2014, considers growing cannabis an agricultural activity. That means the state’s agricultural water use rules apply. If producers use private or municipal wells, they must have a permit from the Oregon Water Resources Department.
California legalized medical marijuana in 1996 and recreational marijuana in 2018. As in Oregon, state permits are required to divert and store surface water for irrigating cannabis. California regulates pesticide use and wastewater discharges from cannabis farms, a role the New Mexico Environment Department may take on if the state legalizes recreational marijuana.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.