An outdoor marijuana grow somewhere in Douglas County.
An outdoor marijuana grow somewhere in Douglas County. Kelly O

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As clouds gather over western Washington for what looks like a little relief from our dry, dry summer, some marijuana growers in eastern Washington are struggling with the rest of the farmers to get enough water.

"We only have irrigation for ten days, then it's shut off for five days," says Brynn, an outdoor grower in eastern Washington who requested anonymity because the county she's in has put a moratorium on marijuana cultivation. "We're just doing what we can, hoping the heat doesn't fry them. We had three weeks in a row when the temperature hit 103 degrees-plus every day." Brynn says her operation uses shade cloth to protect the plants and ground cloth to hold the water in the soil, but they've already lost more than 150 plants in their 500-plant operation.

Brynn says her business partner comes from a family that's been growing hops in eastern Washington for more than six generations, but that this summer has brought "the severest water restrictions we've seen... we're lucky we have our own well for our house water so when plants go into shock we can give them a little bit. Still, you don't want to run your house well dry." (Hops, Brynn added, are marijuana's closest legal crop-relative in the United States. She and her business partner successfully grafted some hops onto some cannabis plants, wondering if it would make the marijuana grow faster or bigger. "The marijuana survived and thrived," she says, "but did not adopt any of the characteristics of hops plants.")

Water theft from the state's irrigation systems has been rampant, she says. "Locks on gates are being cut, water is being diverted... people are driving up trucks and sucking water out of the ditch and taking it to where they want it."

Other growers say cannabis is too valuable to go dry—where there's a buck, there's a way. "If you can't get access to water, you'll go to somebody that has a well and get water," says Alan Schreiber of Ag Development Group, a research and consulting business for the agriculture industry. "The point is, you'll get water. It's a high-value crop."

"Bootlegging or getting water from another source," Schreiber says. "It's not a problem, but more of an inconvenience or expense. If you had to think of the top 10 issues for cannabis growers right now, water is not one of them."

Outdoor, soil-grown marijuana, he says, is not a particularly thirsty plant. "It does not take as much water as an apple tree, does not take as much water as a hop plant, but it takes more than a radish or a turnip plant. I might put it in the same league as blueberries."

Schreiber says he's much more concerned about the pesticides being used by growers who've moved from garage-and-basement operations into the legal marketplace without any serious agricultural education. "Because cannabis is illegal at the federal level, it's illegal to register a pesticide for cannabis," he says. "We can grow it legally but there's no legal way to control pests." And because marijuana is illegal at the federal level, federally funded agricultural specialists—such as Washington State University—aren't allowed to get involved.

"This is a recipe for bad things to happen," he says. "Growers need access to training... there is potential for applicator-exposure risk, worker-exposure risk, consumer-exposure risk."

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When it comes to water theft, marijuana growers aren't more worrisome than any other kind of farmer—and because the crop is now legal, some who've been secretly diverting water for years are legal and in the open for the first time. "Nobody here is naive enough to think nobody's been growing marijuana in the Yakima Valley before the law changed," says Scott Revell, manager of the Roza Irrigation District. "We do not have any known problems, but we probably have some unknown problems."

Revell says local farmers have been growing marijuana in the middle of corn fields—where it can't been seen from the road—and in brushy, tree-friendly areas around canal leaks for years. And if cannabis farmers are serious about diverting large amounts of water, he suspects they're doing it upstream.

"The eastern slopes of the Cascades have a number of creeks that are at all-time lows," he says. "If people are slurping off water up there, it's definitely felt in a year like this."

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