Don’t Forget to Water the Weeds

Background

In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. While using, possessing, and growing marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, twenty states and Washington, DC have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Maryland also allows medical use as a defense in court. Notwithstanding its illegality at the federal level, the medicinal and recreational marijuana industries have been operating under tricky circumstances, namely the lack of access to banking and insurance services. While the burgeoning industry works out its financial issues, the challenge of bringing an illegal crop into the semi-legal market requires addressing an issue that farmers across the arid west encounter: Where to get water to grow plants.

Growing Marijuana

Legalization does not change the fact that growing marijuana is a water intensive endeavor.  Outdoor growing operations may require anywhere from one to fifteen gallons per plant, per day.  For comparison, growing one square foot of potatoes in Colorado requires only about sixteen to twenty-nine gallons of water per growing season. The retail price for marijuana ranges from $150.00 to $300.00 per ounce, whereas the recent price of potatoes is about $0.04 per ounce. Given the wide ranges of potential revenue and estimates of water requirements for growing marijuana, growers can expect a return of about $0.22 to $6.67 per gallon of water “invested” in each plant of marijuana grown outdoors (assuming two ounces of marijuana are harvested from each plant). Compare those figures with the return of about $0.02 to $0.03 per gallon of water to grow one square foot, yielding about eleven to fourteen ounces, of potatoes. The cost of obtaining water sufficient to maintain the marijuana growing operation may constrain production, but clearly, there is an economic advantage to growing weed. However, water is but a single cost that a business must account for among many.

Growing indoors is another option for marijuana growers, especially since grow operations in Colorado must be in an enclosed and locked space. Indoor growers can expect a return close to, or even exceeding, the upper range noted above. Further, there are many methods of growing indoors, and water use varies greatly. Although water savings from reduced evapotranspiration – the amount of water lost by evaporation and released from plants – growing indoors are significant, growing indoors requires energy-intensive equipment that increases energy costs. The growing area is also restricted, constraining the number of plants that a grower can cultivate. Nonetheless,the quantity of water required to cultivate marijuana outdoor or indoor is sure to raise an eyebrow or two, especially given persisting drought conditions in western states.

Environmental Concerns

One of the problems legalization may remedy is that illegal grow operations cause environmental degradation. The United States Forest Service estimates a cost of up to $15,000 per acre to remediate polluted watersheds from illegal marijuana growing operations, partly due to the uncontrolled use of fertilizers and pesticides. In California, illegal grow operations are blamed for pollution harming salmon populations in the Eel and Klamath Rivers. By bringing marijuana out of the black market, states could allocate the use of water in producing marijuana and hold growers accountable for environmental violations, instead of chasing down criminals (or so the thinking goes). However, unless the cost to obtain water legally is less than that of the illegal method, the economic incentive is to stay on the run and use “free” water for grow operations. Illegal marijuana growers, as opposed to legitimate farmers, operate in the black market and have no incentive to follow water use rules. The risk to an illegal marijuana grower’s investment remains constant even when following the rules because the product is illegal. Proponents of the newly legalized industry point to the self-regulating nature of the business, where law-abiding companies single out rule breakers to maintain market competitiveness, advance the legitimacy of the industry, and create an incentive to follow the rules.

Political Concerns

In July 2013, the Board of Pueblo County Commissioners unanimously approved a plan to build greenhouses and grow marijuana on a property with groundwater rights. Rural residents who depend on water to sustain their agriculture-based community opposed the plan. Residents resisted the use of water rights for marijuana cultivation, with one neighbor noting the scarcity of water in a nearby ditch. In September 2013, La Plata County commissioners heard concerns from a resident forced to haul water by truck to his home because of a lowered water table, allegedly due to a marijuana grow operation. Notably, La Plata County prohibits commercial operations from using its water to grow marijuana, potentially affecting a grow operation’s ability to obtain reliable water.

Both opponents of the marijuana industry and those concerned with water conservation are likely to voice their disapproval to  city and county commissioners who approve land for growing marijuana. These stakeholders possess a political check and can back up their resistance to the industry by voting for marijuana foes. Such a scenario may force municipal governments to address new water issues typically left for state administrative bodies to address, as opposed to water issues limited to their local jurisdictions.

Conclusion

Newfound industries face unique challenges. Emerging from the black market, the marijuana industry is only beginning to address issues that will lend itself to the world of legitimate business. From the Federal Government to the local board of commissioners, legalizing marijuana affects every regulatory aspect of business. Of course, if Uncle Sam decides to enforce his laws and send the industry back to the black market, marijuana growers will have more concerns than water use alone.

 

The title picture is of an outdoor, organic cannabis garden and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license to Cannabis Training University. The use of this picture does not in any way suggest that Cannabis Training University endorses this blog.


Sources:

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