The Williams Valley south of Grants Pass could well be the epicenter of Oregon hemp, with 41 registered sites, 2.3% of the state’s total, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
It’s not known for having much water.
So how are growers keeping the hemp green in the midst of extreme drought, and most of the surface irrigation shut off in the valley?
Illegally, says Lorianne Carey, an organic farmer in Williams and a member of Josephine County’s cannabis advisory panel.
“No one growing hemp has senior water rights, the hemp is bright green, and they don’t have tanks,” Carey said of one 8-acre grow near her residence in the Williams area. “They’re either illegally pumping out of the creek or pumping out of the ground. It’s kind of the process of elimination. Last year, friends of mine could hear their neighbors pumping out of the creek at night.”
Because of a large number of complaints last year, the Oregon Water Resources Department hired an assistant watermaster, Scott Prose, in February just to deal with hemp in Southwest Oregon.
Prose has visited 40 of the 41 registered hemp sites in Williams and found that 12 of them didn’t have any water rights and were using well water, not allowed without a commercial permit.
He said he has not found any grower illegally pulling water out of irrigation ditches, creeks or ponds.
But department spokesperson Racquel Rancier said it’s hard to be sure.
“We can look and see if there’s a pump in the stream, is there water coming from the well, and we can also see if there’s an irrigation system in place,” Rancier said. “There’s plants there. The question becomes, ‘Where are you getting the water?’
“It is a challenge. We can go there one day and they may not be taking water from a well or stream, and then we can return to follow up and they are.”
Rancier said the department is pursuing enforcement action against two grow sites in the Eagle Point area, but in general the department is trying to work with growers.
“On the first visit, Scott is focused on education,” she said. “Then we do compliance checks.”
Jackson and Josephine counties have the most hemp farms and acres in Oregon, with 39% of registered growers, which keeps watermasters busy.
Most of the farms were set up in the last two years after hemp was legalized by Congress in 2018.
Prose said some growers don’t know the rules.
“A lot of them are new farmers. A lot of them are new to the area,” he said.
It’s not just Williams. Carey said at an Aug. 5 meeting of the county’s cannabis advisory panel, “everyone had stories of hemp growers illegally irrigating or water trucks pumping out of wells. The consensus was, it’s a huge issue.”
Sheriff Dave Daniel, also on the panel, said it’s been an issue ever since recreational marijuana was legalized by voters in 2014.
“We’ve had people illegally taking water from streams,” he said. “As soon as people started growing, we’d get calls we’d refer to the Water Resources Department.”
Water haulers who fill up at the city’s bulk outlet on Williams Highway have had to wait for over two hours to fill in recent weeks, as water supplies dwindle and demand rises. Some of them said 90% of their business was hemp or marijuana grows.
Chris Briggs, owner of Cool Waters, said some growers have 10,000-gallon tanks, and others have 50,000-gallon bladders lying on the ground.
But Amanda Metzler, another cannabis panel member who lives in Williams, said there’s no way the water trucks can keep all the hemp green in Williams.
“When you add up the acres in Williams without water, you’d have to have an army of water trucks coming through Williams,” said Metzler, a marijuana grower who is president of Farms Inc., which calls itself “Oregon’s Cannabis Farm Advocates.”
Water trucks can also fill at Jackson County Roads Department in White City.
J. Domis, deputy director for the department, said some growers are not truthful when the Water Resources Department checks water sources.
“The watermaster will call me to validate they have an account and are using it,” Domis said. “In some cases I say yes, and in some cases I say no, which means they’re just making up a story to get out of a ticket.”
Prose said he checks whether growers have receipts for bulk water deliveries, and whether they have the tanks to store water.
But it’s a lot of legwork, and the department is focused on educating first, and enforcement in later visits.
“We’re attempting to get through as many sites as possible,” said Jake Johnstone, regional watermaster. “There are nearly 800 registered hemp grows in the Rogue Valley. We’d love to visit just a quarter of them.”
Permits to use groundwater are available during drought declarations, but Johnstone said he wasn’t aware of any applications in Josephine County as of yet.
Sunny Summers, cannabis policy coordinator for the Department of Agriculture, said her department doesn’t check water rights when issuing permits to hemp growers, unlike marijuana growers whose water rights are checked by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
The Department of Agriculture helped pay for the assistant watermaster here because of the large number of complaints from Southern Oregon. Water right issues was among the top three complaints, along with the odor and the use of plastic mulch.
“I like to remind people, agriculture isn’t new, but growing hemp on this scale hasn’t been done in over 80 years in this country,” she said.
Mark Taylor of Jacksonville, founder of the Southern Oregon Hemp Co-op, acknowledged some hemp farmers have started out thinking they can haul water or use a neighbor’s irrigation.
“A lot of growers start out without adequate water, and with low margins, it’s untenable,” Taylor said. “I’ve seen some disasters. One or two out of 10 who call me have no water rights, or low water.”
Farmers along the Tiller-Trail Highway north of Medford were using their potable water wells to irrigate a 2-acre hemp farm, and a neighbor’s well levels dropped, Taylor said. They had to start hauling water.
“Like all elements of commerce, there are those that do things wrong,” he said. “We try to disclose what the legal and right thing to do is.”
Reach reporter Jeff Duewel at 541-474-3720 or firstname.lastname@example.org.