In some of the more rural corners of Oregon’s hemp market, like the state’s southwestern counties, hemp cultivation has boomed over the last few years. So, too, have questions about who is drawing water from where.
Last year, the state had licensed 1,678 hemp producers to grow 26,377 acres, among the highest volume of licensed hemp in the country. The Oregon Water Resources Department, however, began fielding an increase in complaints—particularly in and around the Williams Creek watershed in Josephine County—regarding potential water use violations in the hemp cultivation industry.
Commercial agriculture in Oregon demands a legal water source—part of the licensing scheme that regulates and legitimizes the business.
The most common problem that Jake Johnstone, Southwest Oregon manager for the water resources department, encountered in that region was domestic water supply being rerouted for commercial hemp production—a violation of state law.
“We visited physically 187 registered [hemp] sites. On the site visits a little over 32% or 61 of the registrants were found to have some form of violation,” Johnstone told Oregon Public Broadcasting last month. “And those violations could be using a well without a water right to do so, using surface water — so taking water out of a creek. It was roughly a third of the properties that we visited had some kind of issue with Oregon water law.”
This has been an ongoing narrative in Oregon, where farmers have leapt at the opportunity to grow hemp. The sheer scale of hemp cultivation is greater than it had been in decades, altering the agricultural landscape even as Oregon makes great strides as a legacy market in the state-licensed cannabis space.
Part of the problem at hand is simply a misunderstanding of the rules, state officials have said. Scott Prose, hired in February 2020 as the state water department’s assistant watermaster, said that it’s an educational process—an ongoing point of engagement with hemp growers. “A lot of them are new farmers,” he said last year. “A lot of them are new to the area.”
See below for a series of tips on obtaining water legally in Oregon.
And still, even with the water resources department shipping its audit, hundreds of farms were left unobserved in this project. Looking ahead, with clearance from the Ohio Department of Agriculture and state legislators, more audit inspections are expected on this front.