Hemp farming has increased dramatically in Southwest Oregon, since it was federally legalized in 2018. Today, Jackson and Josephine Counties grow more commercial hemp than any other part of the state. That’s created concerns about illegal water use in rural communities.

Jake Johnstone manages Southwest Oregon for the state water resources department. His office just finished the first-ever audit of water used by hemp farms. JPR’s Erik Neumann spoke with Johnstone about what they learned. He starts by asking how the idea came up.

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Jake Johnstone: The complaint volume had gone up significantly. Folks getting into the hemp industry became a very large commitment of time for staff on verifying whether or not there was a legal source of water.

Erik Neumann: Why is it important to know whether water is being used legally or illegally to grow these kind of crops?

JJ: In the state of Oregon it is required by law to have a legal source of water for commercial agriculture. Hemp being the new industry, and folks going into it at a large scale, there’s a concern that folks who don’t understand that law relationship may just be utilizing water from a well without a water right or maybe just taking surface water without a water right. So, if a certain basin is already “fully allocated” meaning all the water is taken up in water rights, and then someone is coming in and starting a new farm with no water rights and taking some of that water, that negatively affects the senior water right holders as well as any in-stream rights for fish habitat, that kind of thing.

EN: Can you give me a basic description of what you did and where you went for this audit?

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JJ: We started by looking at the Rogue Basin specifically the southwest region as a whole. And then we also worked with our water masters and myself of the region to say these are specific areas of high interest. For example, the Williams watershed came up a lot. There were a lot of complaints out there in the last few years. So, we did a full audit of that area.

EN: What did you find out? What are the key takeaways?

JJ: 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. 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.

EN: What was the most frequent type of violation that you found?

JJ: The most frequent type of violation that we found were folks utilizing their domestic water supply well for commercial propagation. Again, that requires a water right in the state of Oregon and what folks were doing is, for one reason or another, sometimes they don’t have a water right, sometimes they do have a water right, but it’s not reliable — meaning their creek dries up in August, so they’ve still got plants in the ground. They start to use their well.

EN: I know this is the first time that this kind of crop-specific investigation has been done. For example, similar audits have not been done for wine grapes or alfalfa or other crops, so it’s hard to compare. But just focusing on hemp in particular, since that’s what you did this audit on, what does this tell you about the amount of legal or illegal water use happening with hemp?

JJ: What it shows us through some data is that there are great opportunities here for more outreach [and] more education. A lot of the folks that we’ve interacted with can find an avenue to compliance and work cooperatively to do so. Over 50% of the [Oregon Department of Agriculture] registered sites or hemp production sites are in the southwest region. There are still folks moving here to be in this industry. But to answer the question of ‘is it a problem?’ There is an issue here from the water quantity perspective it’s a really difficult thing to unravel because you know, we’ve had some pretty consistent drought years in the southwest region. We’ve seen regulation taking place earlier. So, it’s really hard to just point at one particular industry’s influx and impact on the resource and say ‘that is definitively why.’ But it adds to it, right? It’s a contributing factor. Each new straw in the bucket is going to lower the bucket.

The audit of water use by hemp farms in Southwest Oregon will be presented at the Josephine County Cannabis Advisory Panel on January 20th.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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