Water for weed a contentious issue

Marijuana growers using scarce water illegally can move much faster than the people charged with catching them. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

Whose job is it to say “the bucket stops here?”

Stopping illegal water use by marijuana growers was one of the topics discussed at a marijuana law enforcement forum held by Alamosa County officials on Tuesday.

Enforcement against marijuana growers is a low priority for the Division of Water Resources, the agency that administers water rights throughout the state, said James Heath, an engineer in the DWR’s Division 3, which covers the Rio Grande Basin.

The reason has everything to do with economies of scale.

One marijuana plant consumes about 91 gallons of water throughout its lifespan, Heath said. That means it takes about 3,580 marijuana plants to consume 325,850 gallons of water per year, which is equivalent to one acre-foot – the standard unit of measurement for the DWR.

An acre-foot is enough water to cover a football field to a depth of one foot. The pool at Splashland is about one acre-foot.

A hundred large marijuana growing operations of approximately 3,500 plants each – “probably more marijuana plants than there are in the Valley right now,” said Heath – would consume 100 acre-feet of water.

By comparison, a single 120-acre central pivot irrigated field of potatoes consumes 160 acre-feet a season. One central pivot field of oats consumes 220 acre-feet. For alfalfa it’s 300.

There are 500,000 acres of irrigated land in the San Luis Valley.

“The total current water use in the Valley is enough to water 2.685 billion marijuana plants,” said Heath.

The math means Heath and his colleagues tend to focus their attention elsewhere.

“If we go after a hundred different illegal large-scale grows, which I don’t think we have in the Valley at this time, we would be saving those water users only a hundred acre-feet of water that was stolen,” Heath said. “Whereas if we had one center pivot of potatoes that we go after and make sure they’re not diverting that water illegally, we’re saving those water users 160 acre-feet. We can get after more water by going after the illegal agricultural operations than going after the illegal marijuana operations.”

“Where is our time best spent?” said Heath. “Do we go after the big grows that have expanded their use over the years or that are blatantly stealing water off the river system? Or do we spend our limited time with our limited staff going after a political issue?”

The DWR’s attitude didn’t sit well with Colorado State Representative Ed Vigil.

“I’m a big believer in the prior appropriations doctrine,” said Vigil (D-Fort Garland). “I feel like that needs to be enforced for all industries, and not to just make an exception for one industry because it’s difficult to enforce.”

Heath said his office really has no choice.

“We have to prioritize to keep those water rights whole,” Heath said. “In the prior appropriations system, we want to maximize the water that’s available to legal uses to maximize the beneficial use of those water rights.”

Heath said the DWR’s process for handling violations can take years, and that his office prefers to take a proactive role in ensuring that water users are complying with all relevant regulations rather than prosecuting infringements.

“We don’t have police authority,” said Heath. “I’m not in uniform. I don’t have a badge or a gun. We are not law enforcement agents. Your planning and zoning departments, your sheriffs and police departments, they have the prosecutorial powers.”

Not quite, said Alamosa County Land Use Administrator Rachel Baird.

“We can’t enforce water issues,” said Baird. “We don’t even touch it. Water falls out of our jurisdiction. It’s the sheriff’s arena. And the Division of Water Resources.”

But Alamosa County Sheriff Robert Jackson said that’s news to him.

“We have no idea what our role is in water enforcement,” said Sheriff Jackson. “We haven’t researched that yet. I would probably tell people to call the Land Use office.”

The reaction time of local agencies is a major hindrance to enforcement, said Saguache County Commissioner Jason Anderson.

“If a greenhouse goes up in May, by the time we have gone through our process to figure out land use issues, they’ll be done with their growing season,” said Anderson. “It’s quite easy to put a tank in the back of your truck, water off the creek, use wherever as your bathroom, grow your crop, load it up, and leave everything behind. ”

Even if local officials are stymied by water enforcement, there are other issues to contend with, Baird said.

“Realistically I would worry less about law enforcement than your neighbors,” Baird said. “My old boss used to say, ‘whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting.’”

There are larger-scale ethical issues too.

“If we don’t regulate the industry, the DEA will come in and take it away,” Baird said. “If we don’t have a framework for enforcement, and we don’t follow through on the laws we set, it gives them the leeway to come in and say, ‘this is a nightmare. You’re not following any of your own laws, so we’re cracking down on the whole state.’ They’d make the whole industry illegal again. If we want it to remain legal, we have to do our jobs and follow the laws.”

Baird said she thinks most marijuana growers are probably operating in good faith.

“Somebody who comes here from someplace where water just isn’t an issue, how are they to know that you can’t just pump out of a creek? A lot of people are coming from out of state and they simply aren’t aware of the laws.”

It’s in everyone’s best interest to make an attempt to comply with laws, said Alamosa Code Enforcement Officer Jinger Tilden.

“This has grown so fast we haven’t been able to get a handle on the situation,” Tilden said. “Every department is dealing with the exact same thing. There’s so many rules and regulations that are changing so quickly.”

“If people have questions, call our office. It’s better to be right with the law rather than assume and get in trouble later.