Illegal marijuana farms take West’s water in ‘blatant theft’


LA PINE, Oregon – Jack Dwyer pursued the dream of coming back to earth by settling in 1972 in an idyllic tree-planted plot in Oregon crossed by a stream.

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

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

From dusty cities to the forests of the western United States, illegal marijuana growers consume water in uncontrolled quantities when there is often not enough for everyone, 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 – add pressure during a severe drought.

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

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

Some jurisdictions are fighting back. In May, the California Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors banned trucks carrying 100 gallons or more of water from using roads leading to drylands where some 2,000 illegal marijuana crops allegedly used millions of gallons of water. water per day.

Illegal cultivation “depletes precious groundwater and surface water resources” and jeopardizes the use of water for agricultural, recreational and residential purposes, according to the county ordinance.

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

Many operate under the guise of hemp farms, which were nationally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, said Mark Pettinger, spokesperson for the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission. By law, the maximum THC content in hemp – the compound that gives cannabis its high effect – must not exceed 0.3%. The fibers of the hemp plant are used in the manufacture of ropes, clothing, paper and other products.

Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel believes there are hundreds of illegal crops in his southern Oregon county alone, many of which are funded by foreign funds. He thinks financiers expect to lose a few crops, but the sheer numbers mean many will last until the marijuana is harvested and sold on the black market outside of Oregon.

None of the new sites have been licensed to grow recreational marijuana, Pettinger said. Regulators, faced in 2019 with a backlog of license applications and an overabundance of regulated marijuana, stopped processing new applications until January 2022.

Illegal cultivation has had “catastrophic” consequences on 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 declining.

“It’s just blatant water theft,” Daniel said.

Last month Daniel and his assistants, reinforced by other law enforcement officers, destroyed 72,000 marijuana plants growing in 400 inexpensive greenhouses, known as Hoop Houses.

The water for these plants came from an illicit and improvised system of pumps and pipes from the nearby Illinois River, which is part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, created by Congress to preserve certain rivers of natural, cultural and recreational value. exceptional.

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

“They had actually dug holes in the ground so deep that Deer Creek had dried up… and they had gone down into the water table,” the sheriff said.

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

The creek bed is now a boulder alley lined with brush and trees.

Over the decades, Dwyer created a buried water pipe infrastructure, a dozen taps, and an irrigation system connected to the stream to grow vegetables and protect his home from wildfires. He uses an old well for domestic water, but it is not known 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 college teacher.

Marijuana has been cultivated 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 halls on the issue. Water theft was the main concern, said Christopher Hall, the conservation district’s community organizer.

“The people of the Illinois Valley face 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 which is already so stressed that many farmers, including those who produce 60% of the world’s carrot seed supply, are facing a water shortage this year.

On September 2, Deschutes County authorities searched a 30-acre property in Alfalfa, just east of Bend. It had 49 greenhouses containing nearly 10,000 marijuana plants and featured a complex sprinkler system with multiple 15,000 to 20,000 gallon tanks. Neighbors told detectives the illegal cultivation 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 water supplies. Illegal crops make matters worse.

In La Pine, south of Bend, Rodger Jincks observed a crew drilling a new well on his property. The first sign his existing well was failing came when the pressure dropped as he watered his tiny lawn. Driller Shane Harris estimated the water table is dropping 6 inches per year.

Last November, sheriff’s deputies raided an illegal crop a block of 500 marijuana plants.

Jincks’ neighbor, Jim Hooper, worries his well will fail afterwards. He blames illegal crops and their uncontrolled use of water.

“With the illegals, there is no follow-up,” Hooper said. “They’re just stealing water from the rest of us, forcing us to spend thousands of dollars to drill new, deeper wells.”

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