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Editorial: NM drinking water is the wrong source to irrigate pot farms

FOR THE RECORD: This editorial misstated the state’s number of licensed nonprofit medical cannabis producers and the number of cannabis plants grown in New Mexico. There are 34 licensed nonprofit medical cannabis producers and a maximum of 39,500 cannabis plants in the state at any one time, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.

As the old saying goes, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. A 21st century update of that Western adage might be cannabis is for consumption, while water is for fighting.

Representatives of two rural water systems in Sandoval County told Journal reporter Theresa Davis for a Jan. 5 story that cannabis growers may be depleting local water supplies, and they can’t stop it, even as more medical pot plants are sprouting up in New Mexico than ever before.

Representatives from the Peña Blanca Water and Sanitation District and the Sile Mutual Domestic Water and Sewer Association say N.M.’s patchwork of medical cannabis regulations has not kept up with the increased strain on rural water supplies, and that improper water use by cannabis growers may be exacerbating the problem.

An average household in the Peña Blanca system uses about 3,000 gallons of water a month, according to the district’s president, while a cannabis farm with greenhouses in Peña Blanca is logging 20,000 gallons a month. That’s a lot of dry mouth for the remainder of water district users.

The two water groups are asking companies applying for a cannabis growing license to prove a valid water right for commercial agriculture. That stands to reason, as domestic well water is not supposed to be used for agriculture here. Instead, farmers must irrigate crops with another water source by acquiring a valid water right.

A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture told the Journal the Agriculture Department regulates hemp cultivation to the point of harvest, but not medical cannabis because cannabis is not considered a traditional agronomic crop. Instead, the New Mexico Department of Health regulates medical cannabis production.

But cannabis is grown, irrigated and cultivated long before it is distributed to patients, right? This lack of collaboration between agencies is one more example of how our government has failed to keep up with the times. New Mexico legalized medical cannabis in 2007, yet, 13 years later, some growers are apparently ignoring water law and just turning on the spigot. And because cannabis remains a federally controlled substance, there are still myriad other issues – including that mutual domestic well systems used to water marijuana cannot receive federal infrastructure improvement money or water from the Bureau of Reclamation, so scofflaw pot farms could be putting strapped water systems’ federal funding at risk.

A spokesperson for the state Health Department told the Journal that cannabis producers currently do not have to disclose water rights or water management practices when applying for a license. What? And enforcement is up to local water districts; a member of the Sile water system board says security is so tight at some nurseries, water district officials can’t even get inside to read the meters.

According to the Health Department, there are 104 licensed cannabis producers in the state needing water to irrigate 68,000 cannabis plants. Each cannabis plant grown outdoors consumes 2 to 6 gallons of water every day, depending of your source of information. In the West, that’s a lot of water worth fighting for.

While the Journal has supported medical marijuana, it does not support depleting drinking water for irrigation. State agencies need to work together to ensure growers obtain water rights, not just a spigot and a garden hose.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.