MEDFORD, Ore. — The Oregon Water Resources Department has hired a new assistant watermaster in southwest Oregon to keep up with the region’s rapidly expanding hemp industry.
Scott Prose joined the agency Feb. 1 after previously working with the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission in Portland. His job includes checking whether hemp growers licensed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture have legal water rights to irrigate their crop.
In addition to auditing water rights, Prose will help district watermasters in Medford, Grants Pass and Roseburg investigate complaints against hemp farms accused of misusing or illegally taking water.
“The majority of our complaints, either substantiated or not substantiated, have been related to cannabis or the hemp agriculture program in the last four or five years,” said OWRD Southwest Region Manager Jake Johnstone, who oversees surface water and groundwater resources in Jackson, Josephine, Coos, Curry and Douglas counties.
ODA provided $200,000 through the state’s industrial hemp program to fund the assistant watermaster position through the end of the 2019-21 biennium. Johnstone said regulators hope to compile data measuring the impact of illegal water use on newly registered hemp farms.
“The Southwest Region, having a high density of hemp registrations, we thought it would be best to start with that area and quantify it,” Johnstone said.
As of March 10, Oregon had 647 hemp growers registered for 2020. Jackson County leads the state with 134 registrations, followed by Josephine County with 71 registrations. ODA is also processing more than 200 additional applications for grower licenses.
Oregon issued its first hemp grower license in 2015 under rules established by the 2014 Farm Bill. Eleven growers received licenses that first year, nine of whom actually planted and harvested a crop.
Since then, interest in the program has increased exponentially. The number of grower licenses issued statewide skyrocketed to 1,961 in 2019, coming on the heels of the 2018 Farm Bill which removed hemp from the list of federally controlled substances.
The OWRD Southwest Region accounted for 741 grower registrations last year, or about 37% of the state total, which Johnstone said created a “significant uptick” in work for his field staff.
OWRD has not traditionally tracked water complaints by agricultural commodity, so it is unclear just how many the department received about hemp. But Johnstone said the influx of farms — or “green rush,” as it is sometimes called — has undoubtedly led to more calls from concerned neighbors.
“(Water) is a limited resource, and agriculture is a livelihood for folks,” Johnstone said. “The majority of the state is already fully allocated.”
Hiring a new assistant watermaster will allow the region to better protect water resources, Johnstone said. Prose grew up on the nearby Applegate River, helping to run his family’s own farm before earning his bachelor’s degree in government with an emphasis in public policy and natural resources from the University of Redlands in California.
Johnstone said new hemp farmers often are not aware of Oregon water law and neglect due diligence checking to see what, if any, water rights are associated with their property.
“There is a rush to get involved in this industry,” Johnstone said. “I try to reiterate the point whenever I speak with folks in the hemp industry, that you have to have a reliable source of water and you have to have it for the entirety of your growing season.”
Racquel Rancier, a spokeswoman for OWRD, said the department has seen a few cases of hemp farms violating water rights that led to enforcement actions.
Most recently, a farm in southwest Oregon was irrigating 85 acres of hemp from an unpermitted water source after their legal water right source had dried up for the summer. Across the state in Harney County, a farmer drilled five irrigation wells without securing a water right, then planted nearly 750 acres of hemp within a designated area of limited groundwater supplies.
“The system of allocating water and requiring rights to use water has been put in place because water is a finite resource, and there is often not enough water to meet all demands,” Rancier said. “As such, taking water without a right can injure others that have the right to use that water.”
Johnstone, however, was careful to say he does not believe the problem is industry-wide for hemp as may be the perception among those who disapprove of the new crop, which bears a similar appearance and smell to marijuana.
Mark Taylor, founder of the Southern Oregon Hemp Co-op, said he worries about hemp being unfairly targeted by regulators based on bias or misunderstanding against the crop.
”Hemp is grown in such large quantities now,” Taylor said. “We’ve exceeded the wine industry and the pear industry — what’s left of it — in three or four years.” That transformation, he added, may be “shocking to the senses.”
Taylor agreed a lot of new hemp farmers may be naive to Oregon water law. He said regulators should be focused on education, rather than jumping to enforcement.
”They need help, not hindrance,” Taylor said.
Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Advocates, said the group is happy to see OWRD bolster its staff to make sure hemp farms are following water law. She said the county farm bureaus are also working with agencies to make sure new hemp growers know who to call and what to ask for when they arrive in Oregon.
”If somebody hasn’t done it right, they could have a very expensive crop in the ground and no means to water it,” Cooper said.
By George Plaven of Capital Press (March 11, 2020)