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A bill nearing final approval at the Roundhouse has sparked debate about New Mexico’s rules governing water use and cannabis production.
The latest version of Senate Bill 100 would remove a requirement for producers to show proof of a valid water right before receiving a cannabis license.
The bill was originally scheduled for the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday after securing Senate approval earlier this week, but a lengthy House floor session prevented that committee from meeting.
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, said the original rule was a roadblock for small farmers looking to grow recreational marijuana.
“I don’t have to prove to anybody when I’m growing corn or cotton that I have a legal right to the water,” Pirtle said. “It’s illegal to pump water for any other purpose than what you have a right to do, so why are we putting this up front and creating such a barrier for businesses to get involved in this industry?”
A coalition led by the New Mexico Acequia Association argues the provision was a “guardrail” against illegal water use.
NMAA Executive Director Paula Garcia pointed to a medical cannabis grower that was using domestic water supplies in the small communities of Sile and Peña Blanca.
“We’re not against cannabis cultivation,” Garcia said. “This is about protecting water for our communities and for future generations.”
The Office of the State Engineer currently validates water rights for cannabis licenses.
“We’re seeing it already that some of these cannabis entities think they’ve got their water rights in order, but they may be using a domestic well or a water right that’s not valid,” said John Romero, the office’s water resource allocation program director.
Romero said he expects a flood of water rights applications for cannabis in the coming months.
Certification may include research on the property’s water rights history and hydrological models to determine if the water use would impinge on other users.
The bulk of proposed changes to last year’s cannabis laws would boost plant counts and regulate taxes on cannabis products.
Water use changes first made an appearance at the Feb. 13 Senate Judiciary Committee.
The panel voted to remove a section that made cannabis licenses conditional upon water rights documentation.
Original bill sponsor Sen. Linda Lopez said that section protected scarce water supplies.
“A simple demonstration of the availability of water for you to use for growing this product is, I think, very appropriate,” the Albuquerque Democrat said.
The Senate adopted Pirtle’s amendment allowing the state to revoke a cannabis license “if a licensee is using water to which the licensee does not have a legal right.”
Garcia said she believes that change is insufficient. “It’s really hard to rein in an illegal use when it’s already started,” she said.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.