Agriculture & Cultivation

Cannabis Cultivation: Water Efficiency and Regulations

January 12, 2018 / By 3C Team

One of the most important elements to consider in cannabis cultivation is water efficiency. With droughts ravaging California and a host of bureaucratic regulations in just about every state that has legalized marijuana (including California), it is important for cultivators to be well informed on water issues. This includes information about water quality, the quantity being used as well as the source of your water supply.

Cannabis Cultivation Policy

First and foremost, it is important to know if you are complying with all regulations regarding  water use for growing commercial cannabis. Certain states, such as California, have specific laws regarding water use for cannabis cultivation. The California State Water Board adopted the Cannabis Cultivation Policy to establish guidelines for water quality and the quantity of water used for cannabis cultivation in the state. “We are establishing the environmental protection rules of the road needed to deal with the expected expansion of cannabis cultivation statewide,” said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus. The Cannabis Cultivation Policy “creates a strict set of rules cannabis cultivators will need to follow in order to protect water quality and quantity.” The policy was developed in consultation with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). It is now being incorporated into all commercial cannabis cultivation licenses issued by CDFA under its CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing Program.

Commercial Cannabis Cultivation Regulations and Restrictions

There are a variety of regulations and restrictions governing the use of water in commercial cannabis cultivation in California. One such law, SB 837, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 2016, states that “Existing law prohibits an entity from substantially diverting or obstructing the natural flow of, or substantially changing or using any material from the bed, channel, or bank of, any river, stream, or lake, or from depositing certain material where it may pass into any river, stream, or lake, without first notifying the Department of Fish and Wildlife of that activity.” That includes hoses coming from streams (which has been documented as a way of officials finding and shutting down illegal cannabis cultivation operations).

Hezekiah Allen, Executive Director of the California Growers Association, recommends growers store water during the rainy season so they don’t have to drain the state’s water resources in the summer months.

For marijuana growers using municipal water supplies, you must verify that your water is coming from a source that is not federally managed. It is essential to know and follow all regulations regarding water usage and supply source. Municipal water supplies in parts of Nevada and Southern California are provided by the Federal Bureau of Reclamation via diversions from the Colorado River and are therefore prohibited for use in cannabis operations. We encourage our commercial cannabis cultivation clients to fully understand and comply with state and local regulations and always follow best practices for sustainability. If you need support to ensure that you are operating your cultivation facility in compliance, a cannabis business consultant is well worth the investment.

How Much Water Does It Take To Grow Cannabis?

Commercial agriculture uses approximately 80% of the state’s “developed water,” or water that’s moved from its natural source via pipes and aqueducts for businesses and homes. The exact amount of water it takes to grow cannabis depends on several factors such as the location, size of plants, type of soil, strain, etc. The general consensus reached by the Emerald Growers Association in Humboldt County, is that it takes approximately 100 – 200 gallon of water to produce one pound of processed flower. By way of comparison, commercial almond farmers and cattle ranchers (it takes approximately 1,900 gallons of water to grow one pound of almonds and 1,800 gallons of water to grow one pound of beef) in California’s Central Valley have been sucking water resources dry as regulations on groundwater pumping in that area have been fairly lax (and heavily lobbied against by corporate agriculture) over the past decade, perhaps longer.

According to the LA Times, “Overpumping in the Central Valley has depleted groundwater reserves by 80 million acre-feet since 1962 (as of 2015).” This overpumping has caused areas of the valley to sink, which can prevent new rainwater from finding enough room to replenish these aquifers, permanently reducing their water levels. California, supplier of nearly half of all US fruits, veggies, and nuts, recently experienced a string of the driest years since the establishment of the National Weather Service in 1870. Cannabis cultivators must strive to do a better job of environmental stewardship than what the farmers of California’s Central Valley have done. Being water efficient is not just about saving money. It’s also about doing what’s right for our environment and sharing limited water resources with others, including animals and native plants. It’s our responsibility to maintain a healthy ecosystem and a plentiful, clean water supply.

Intro to Regional Water Resources

At the end of the day cannabis is an agricultural crop and is therefore dependent upon environmental factors for successful cultivation. These factors change depending upon the region you are cultivating in. In general, The eastern United States has more plentiful water resources than the west. Northern latitudes have shorter growing seasons. Each specific microclimate varies in humidity, sunlight, and water availability. Large scale cannabis operations are dependant upon abundant water resources to operate. States like California have experienced more time in drought conditions than not in the last five years.

As of January 2, 2018 most of California is free of drought. There are a few dry patches that are worth noting, however, as these areas may be more difficult to grow commercial cannabis this year, due to a lack of water. The largest fire in California’s history recently burned through areas in Ventura County considered to be in a moderate drought. This area was part of the nearly 13% of California (all in the southern California area) that the state has declared to be in a moderate drought. Just one year ago, however, it was a completely different story. In January of 2017 over 75% of California was considered to be in severe, extreme or exceptional drought conditions. Farmers throughout the state suffered crop losses. Those losses combined with increases in the price of water caused the prices of produce grown in California to skyrocket last year. The point is, that water conservation needs to be factored into the equation in your commercial cannabis cultivation operation, especially if you are based in California or Nevada.

California’s cannabis water use regulations were designed to ensure responsible use of this precious resource. Many marijuana growers located in regions in California where cultivating cannabis is fairly prevalent, such as Humboldt County, may be able to collect enough rain water to irrigate their crops but adequate infrastructure is necessary to do so. In California, the regional differences in rainfall have an impact on the ability to collect rainwater as Northern California receives a great deal more water annually on average.

Although California has experienced drought conditions over the past five years, 2017 was a particularly rainy year and 2018 has kicked off with dramatic rainfall amounts that have caused serious flooding and deadly mudslides in parts of southern California. According to a 2017 article about cannabis legalization and its impact on water usage in California, “It [Legalization of cannabis for recreational use] may have positive effects. For instance, a grower seeking a commercial production permit must install a water storage system that can be filled in the wet winter season. Such a system would allow growers to keep plantations lush and green all summer without drawing water from creeks, which can easily be pumped dry during California’s hot and mostly rainless summers.”
Every grower, whether producing cannabis commercially or for personal use, should be sure to track water usage and yield data for each variety of marijuana they grow. That data will help cannabis cultivators to determine the perfect balance between maximum water efficiency and achieving the highest yield per plant. Finding this sweet spot will benefit both the bottom line of individual growers and the environment as a whole.

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