Friday, October 22, 2021

Illegal marijuana farms take away the West’s scarce water

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LA PINE, Pray. (AP) – Jack Dwyer pursued the dream of returning to earth by moving in 1972 to an idyllic, tree-lined Oregon parcel with a creek running through it.

“We were going to grow our own food. We were going to live righteously. We were going to farm organically, ”Dwyer said. During the decades that followed, he and his family did just that.

But now, Deer Creek has dried up after several illegal marijuana crops sprang up in the neighborhood last spring, stealing water from both the creek and nearby aquifers and putting Dwyer’s future in doubt.

From dusty towns to forests in the western US, illegal marijuana growers are drinking water in uncontrolled quantities when there is often not enough for everyone, not even authorized users. Conflicts over water have been around for a long time, but illegal marijuana farms, which proliferate despite legalization in many western states, are adding tension. during a severe drought.

In California, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2016, there are still more illegal cannabis farms than authorized, according to the Cannabis Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Because the peak water demand for cannabis occurs in the dry season, when stream flow is at its lowest, even small diversions can dry out streams and damage aquatic plants and animals.” a center study said.

Some jurisdictions are fighting back. California’s Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors in May banned trucks carrying 100 gallons or more of water from using roads leading to arid areas where some 2,000 illegal marijuana crops reportedly used millions of gallons of water a day.

Illegal crops are “depleting precious surface and groundwater resources” and jeopardizing agricultural, recreational and residential water use, the county ordinance says.

In Oregon, the number of illegal crops appears to have increased recently as the Pacific Northwest weathered its third spring since 1924.

Many operate under the guise of hemp farms, legalized nationally under the Farm Bill of 2018, said Mark Pettinger, a spokesman for the Oregon Cannabis and Liquor Commission. By law, the maximum THC content of hemp, the compound that gives cannabis its effect, must not exceed 0.3%. Fibers from the hemp plant are used in the manufacture of rope, clothing, paper, and other products.

Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel believes there are hundreds of illegal crops in his southern Oregon county alone, many financed with foreign money. He believes that financiers hope to lose some crops, but the large numbers of them mean that many will last until the marijuana is harvested and sold on the black market outside of Oregon.

None of the new sites are licensed to grow recreational marijuana, Pettinger said. Regulators, faced in 2019 by a backlog of license applications and a glut of regulated marijuana, stopped processing new applications until January 2022.

Illegal crops have had “catastrophic” consequences for natural water resources, Daniel said. Several streams have dried up much earlier than normal and the water table, the subterranean boundary between water-saturated soil and unsaturated soil, is falling.

“It is a blatant theft of water,” Daniel said.

Last month, Daniel and his aides, backed up by other law enforcement officers, destroyed 72,000 marijuana plants growing in 400 cheaply built greenhouses, known as hoop houses.

The water for those plants came through a makeshift and illicit system of pumps and hoses from the nearby Illinois River, which is part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, created by Congress to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values.

Daniel said another illegal crop that had 200,000 plants was drawing water from Deer Creek using pumps and pipes. He called it “one of the most blatant and ugliest things I have ever seen.”

“In fact, they had dug holes in the ground so deep that Deer Creek had dried up … and they were at the water table,” the sheriff said.

Dwyer has a water right to Deer Creek, near the Selma community, that allows him to farm. The creek can dry up late in the year sometimes, but Dwyer has never seen it this dry, let alone this early in the year.

The creek bed is now a rocky avenue lined with brush and trees.

Over the decades, Dwyer created buried water pipe infrastructure, a dozen taps, and a stream-connected irrigation system to grow vegetables and protect his home from wildfires. You use an old well for your house water, but it’s unclear how long it will last.

“I just don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t have water,” said the 75-year-old retired high school teacher.

Marijuana has been grown for decades in southern Oregon, but the recent explosion of huge illegal crops has shocked residents.

The Illinois Valley Soil and Water Conservation District, where Dwyer lives, recently held two town hall meetings on the subject. Water theft was the main concern, said Christopher Hall, a community organizer for the conservation district.

“The people of the Illinois Valley are experiencing an existential threat for the first time in local history,” Hall said.

In the high desert of central Oregon, illegal marijuana growers are also tapping into the water supply that is already so stressed that many farmers, including those who produce 60% of the world’s supply of carrot seeds, face water shortages this year. anus.

On September 2, Deschutes County authorities raided a 30-acre (12-hectare) property in Alfalfa, east of Bend. It had 49 greenhouses containing nearly 10,000 marijuana plants and featured a complex irrigation system with multiple 15,000 to 20,000 gallon cisterns. Neighbors told detectives that the illegal cultivation had forced them to drill a new well, Sheriff Shane Nelson said.

The Bend area has experienced a population boom, which has increased the demand for its water supply. Illegal crops are making things worse.

At La Pine, south of Bend, Rodger Jincks watched a crew drill a new well on his property. The first sign that his existing well was failing came when the pressure dropped as he watered his tiny front yard. Driller Shane Harris estimated that the water table is dropping 6 inches (15 centimeters) per year.

Sheriff’s deputies last November raided an illegal crop a block away that contained 500 marijuana plants.

Jincks neighbor Jim Hooper worries his well may fail next. Illegal crops and their uncontrolled use of water annoy him.

“With the illegals, there is no follow-up,” Hooper said. “They are simply stealing water from the rest of us, which is spending thousands of dollars to drill new, deeper wells.”

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

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Follow AP’s full drought coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/droughts

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