ANDREW SELSKY, Associated Press
Jack Dwyer had a dream of getting back to the country by moving to idyllic, tree-lined Oregon property in 1972 with a stream running through it.
“We wanted to grow our own food. We would live righteously. We wanted to grow organically, ”said Dwyer. In the decades that followed, he and his family did just that.
But now Deer Creek has dried up after several illegal marijuana growing areas emerged in the neighborhood last spring that stole water from both the creek and nearby aquifers and challenged Dwyer’s future.
From dusty cities to western forests, illegal marijuana growers consume water in uncontrolled amounts when there is often not enough, even for licensed users. Conflicts over water have been around for a long time, but illegal marijuana farms, which are proliferating in many western states despite legalization, are a burden during a severe drought.
California, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2016, still has more illegal cannabis farms than licensed ones, according to the Cannabis Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Since the peak water demand for cannabis occurs in the dry season, when the current is lowest, even small diversions can dry out streams and harm aquatic plants and animals,” according to a study by the center.
Some jurisdictions are resisting. California’s Siskiyou County’s Board of Supervisors in May banned trucks with 100 gallons or more of water from using roads leading to arid areas, where about 2,000 illegal marijuana is grown, allegedly using millions of gallons of water every day.
Illegal cultivation “consumes valuable groundwater and surface water resources” and endangers water use for agriculture, recreation and living, according to the district ordinance.
In Oregon, the number of illegal crops appears to have increased recently as the Pacific Northwest experienced its driest spring since 1924.
Many operate under the guise of being hemp farms legalized nationwide under the 2018 Farm Bill, said Mark Pettinger, spokesman for the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission. By law, the maximum THC content of hemp – the compound that gives cannabis its high – cannot exceed 0.3%. Fibers from the hemp plant are used to make ropes, clothing, paper and other products.
Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel believes there are hundreds of illegal crops in his southern Oregon County alone, many of which are funded with overseas money. He believes financiers expect to lose a few grows, but the sheer number of them means many will hold up until the marijuana is harvested and sold on the black market outside of Oregon.
None of the new sites have been licensed to grow recreational marijuana, Pettinger said. Regulators, faced with a backlog of license applications and a spate of regulated marijuana in 2019, stopped processing new applications until January 2022.
The illegal cultivation had “catastrophic” consequences for natural water resources, said Daniel. Several streams dried up much earlier than usual and the water table is sinking.
“It’s just blatant water theft,” said Daniel.
Last month Daniel and his deputies, reinforced by other police officers, destroyed 72,000 marijuana plants growing in 400 cheaply built greenhouses called tire houses.
The water for these plants came through a makeshift, illegal system of pumps and tubing from the nearby Illinois River, which is part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System created by Congress to circulate certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values to obtain.
Daniel said another illegal crop of 200,000 plants was using pumps and pipes to draw water from Deer Creek. He called it “one of the grossest and ugliest things I’ve ever seen”.
“They actually dug holes so deep that Deer Creek dried up … and they were in the groundwater,” said the sheriff.
Dwyer has a water right to Deer Creek, near Selma Township, which allows him to grow crops. The creek can sometimes get dry late in the year, but Dwyer has never seen it so dry, let alone this early in the year.
The creek bed is now an avenue of rocks lined with bushes and trees.
Over the decades, Dwyer created an infrastructure of buried water pipes, a dozen cones, and an irrigation system connected to the creek to grow vegetables and protect his home from forest fires. He uses an old well for house water, but it is unclear how long that will last.
“I just don’t know what to do if I don’t have water,” said the 75-year-old retired middle school teacher.
Marijuana has been grown in southern Oregon for decades, but the recent explosion in the huge illegal cultivation has shocked residents.
The Illinois Valley Soil and Water Conservation District, where Dwyer lives, recently held two town halls on the subject. Water theft is the main concern, said Christopher Hall, the community organizer for the conservation district.
“The people of the Illinois Valley are facing an existential threat for the first time in local history,” Hall said.
In the high desert of central Oregon, illegal marijuana growers are also tapping water supplies, which are already so tight that many farmers, including those who produce 60% of the world’s carrot seed supply, face water shortages this year.
On September 2, Deschutes County authorities raided a 30-acre property in Alfalfa, east of Bend. It had 49 greenhouses with nearly 10,000 marijuana plants and a complex irrigation system with several 15,000 to 20,000 gallon cisterns. Neighbors told detectives that the illegal cultivation forced them to drill a new well, Sheriff Shane Nelson said.
The Bend area has experienced a population boom that has made greater demands on the water supply. The illegal cultivation makes things worse.
In La Pine, south of Bend, Rodger Jincks watched a crew dig a new well on his property. The first sign that his existing well was failing came when the pressure eased as he watered his tiny front yard. Drill Shane Harris estimated that the water table is falling 6 inches every year.
The sheriff’s deputies raided an illegal farm last November that had 500 marijuana plants a block away.
Jinck’s neighbor Jim Hooper worries that his well may fail next. He is annoyed about the illegal cultivation and the uncontrolled consumption of water.
“There is no persecution among the illegals,” said Hooper. “They’re just stealing our water, which results in us spending thousands of dollars drilling new wells deeper.”