Volume No. 15 Issue No. 9 September 2018  



  Illegal marijuana grows: water usage
  By Lindsey Harrison

     According to the August issue of “The New Falcon Herald,” the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office has conducted raids on more than 61 illegal marijuana grow operations in the county, including the city of Colorado Springs, since Jan. 1. With another estimated 600 illegal operations that need to be addressed, eastern EPC residents’ concerns have turned to the potential effects of those illegal operations on water supply in the region.
   
   Kevin Rein, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said it is a completely valid concern; but the amount of water used by any marijuana-grow operation is likely less than what a typical farmer’s crop would require.
   
   Rein estimated a 10.5-acre outdoor grow facility uses about 30-acre-feet of water per year, which he said is not unreasonable. “It is beneficial to them to be very efficient and effective with their water use and the demand is probably less than that of a typical crop,” he said.
   
   According to an article published on the United States Fish and Wildlife Services website June 6, 2017, “Illegal marijuana cultivation requires water –- and lots of it. Scientists estimate it takes six gallons of water per day for a single marijuana plant.”
   
   A representative from the Upper Black Squirrel Creek Groundwater Management District, who wished to remain anonymous, said that while municipal water supplies might be able to sustain the increasing demands of legal and illegal marijuana grow operations alike, water is a finite resource and must be regulated as such.
   
   “Any of these uses, especially those that are illegal, are certainly not helpful,” he said. “We are trying to protect everyone’s water. If we know it will not last forever, why at the state level, are they not helping us curtail the illegal uses?”
   
   Although they might be currently operating illegally and using a domestic well or improperly using irrigation, Rein said the DWR has encountered many operations that just want to operate legally and come into compliance with water laws.
   
   “We inform them to file an application with the Colorado water court, which is the avenue they would use to legalize their operation, and they have shown an effort in doing what they need to become legal,” Rein said.
   
   There are certainly acute geographic concerns when it comes to water supply, but Rein said nothing has led the DWR to conclude that illegal operations will negatively impact Colorado’s water supply overall.
   
   The groundwater management district representative said that generalization by the DWR is causing enforcement issues for smaller areas that depend solely on aquifers. His district relies on wells within the Denver Basin Aquifer system, which is made up of three aquifers at varying levels under the ground. The Dawson Aquifer is the shallowest, the Denver Basin Aquifer is below that and the deepest is the Laramie-Fox Hills Aquifer.
   
   “Our management district tries to limit withdrawal for new wells on residential homes,” he said. “It is absolutely necessary that we have limits when they create these new subdivisions. Through state statute, management districts have enforcement capabilities but not the mechanism of enforcement, which is the monetary fine per day. That is up to the state.”
   
   Because the wells in his district are private, as with other similar groundwater management districts, there is no way to determine how much water a well is withdrawing from the aquifer; and it only becomes apparent that the aquifer is being depleted when someone’s well dries up, he said.
   
   “People are having to drill new wells (to access water farther down),” he said. “It is expensive to drill a new well, it is close to $40,000.”
   
   Rein said the DWR has investigated how an aquifer hydro-geologically replenishes itself and cannot find or corroborate any concern that illegal marijuana growing operations are going to either drain or lower the aquifer to a point where other well owners cannot reach water they are legally permitted to access.
   
   The groundwater district representative said it is not just the water supply that is of concern; it is the water quality. “We do not know how they (the illegal growing operations) are handling pesticides and fertilizers,” he said.
   
   The U.S. Fish and Wildlife article also states that tests were done on fish hooks that had been submerged in water near an illegal grow site. “The hooks tested positive for methomyl, a powerful, broad-spectrum insecticide that is highly toxic to humans, livestock and wildlife. Formulations with more than 1 percent of methomyl are considered restricted-use pesticides and are not allowed for use in households or by non-professionals.”
   
   While those same chemicals might not be used by every operation, the UBSC district representative said regulating marijuana grow operations should still be of bigger concern for the state.
   
   Rein said he does not want to trivialize or understate the significance of marijuana grow operations using water illegally, but the bottom line is this: “We do not see that as an impact to the state water supply.”
 
 
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