Jack Dwyer chased the dream of going back to land in Oregon in 1972 by walking along a creek in an idyllic, tree-studded parcel.
“We were going to grow our own food. We were supposed to live the right way. We were going to grow organic,” Dwyer said. In the decades that followed, he and his family did just that.
But now, after several illegal marijuana surges grew in the neighborhood last spring, Deer Creek has dried up, stealing water from both the stream and nearby aquifers and putting Dwyer’s future in doubt.
From dusty cities to forests in the US West, illegal marijuana growers are taking in uncontrollable amounts of water, when often not even enough for licensed users. Conflicts about water have existed for a long time, but illegal marijuana farms — which continue to grow despite legalization in many Western states — are increasing tensions during a severe drought.
In California, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2016, there are still more illegal cannabis farms than licensed ones, according to the Cannabis Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
A study from the center states, “Since the peak water demand for cannabis occurs in the dry season, when stream flow is at its lowest, even small diversions can dry up streams and can harm aquatic plants and animals.”
Some jurisdictions are fighting back. California’s Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors in May banned trucks carrying 380 liters or more of water from using the roads where some 2,000 illegal marijuana is grown, which reportedly uses millions of gallons of water daily. were using.
The county ordinance says growing illegals are “depleting precious groundwater and surface water resources” and endangering agricultural, recreational and residential water use.
In Oregon, the number of illegal hikes has increased recently as the Pacific Northwest endured its driest spring since 1924.
Mark Pettinger, a spokesman for the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, said many are operating under the guise of being a nationally legal hemp farm under the 2018 Farm Bill. Under the law, the maximum THC content of hemp — the compound that gives hemp high — must not exceed 0.3%. The fibers of the cannabis plant are used to make rope, clothing, paper, and other products.
Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniels believes there are hundreds of illegal farms in his southern Oregon county alone, many of which are financed with foreign funds. He believes financiers expect some growth, but a much larger number of them means that until marijuana is harvested and sold on the black market outside of Oregon.
Pettinger said none of the new sites have been licensed to grow recreational marijuana. Regulators, faced with a backlog of license applications and an abundance of regulated marijuana in 2019, stopped processing new applications until January 2022.
Daniel said growing illegally has had “disastrous” consequences for natural water resources. Many creeks have dried up much earlier than usual and water levels – the underground boundary between water-saturated soils and unsaturated soils – are falling.
“It’s just blatant water theft,” Daniel said.
Last month, reinforced by other law enforcement officers, Daniel and his deputies destroyed 72,000 marijuana plants growing in 400 inexpensive greenhouses known as cordon houses.
The water for those plants came from the nearby Illinois River through an illegal, illegal system of pumps and hoses, belonging to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, designated by Congress as Some Rivers with Outstanding Natural, Cultural and Recreational Values. was created to protect.
Daniel said another illegal development that contained 200,000 plants was drawing water from Deer Creek using pumps and pipes. He called it “one of the ugliest and ugliest things I’ve seen”.
“They actually dug a hole so deep in the ground that Deer Creek had dried up … and they had fallen into the water table,” the sheriff said.
Dwyer has water rights on Deer Creek, near the community of Selma, which allows him to grow crops. The creek can sometimes dry out late in the year, but Dwyer has never seen it so dry, much less than at the beginning of the year.
The stream is now a tract of rocks surrounded by brush and trees.
Over the decades, Dwyer built an infrastructure of buried water pipes, a dozen spigots, and an irrigation system connected to the creek to grow vegetables and protect his home from wildfires. He uses an old well for domestic water, but it is unclear how long this will last.
“I 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 a recent explosion of rampant illegal development has shocked residents.
The Illinois Valley Soil and Water Conservation District, where Dwyer lives, recently held two town halls about the issue. Water theft was the main concern, said Christopher Hall, 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 exploiting water supplies that are already so stressed that many farmers, who produce 60% of the world’s carrot-seed supply, are facing water shortages this year. encounter.
On September 2, Deschutes County officials raided a 12-hectare property in Alfalfa, east of Bend. It had 49 greenhouses containing approximately 10,000 marijuana plants and a complex water system with multiple pools of 56,000- to 76,000-litres. Sheriff Shane Nelson said neighbors told detectives that illegal development had forced them to dig a new well.
There has been a population boom in the Bend area, leading to greater demands on the water supply. Illegal developments are making things worse.
At La Pine, south of Bend, Roger Jinks saw a crew drill a new well on his property. The first sign that his existing well was failing was when the pressure dropped as he watered his small front lawn. Driller Shane Harris estimated that the water level is falling 15 centimeters per year.
The sheriff’s deputy raided an illegal grow a block away last November that contained 500 marijuana plants.
Jinx’s neighbor, Jim Hooper, worries that their well may fail further. He opposes illegal growing and their uncontrolled use of water.
“With illegal people, there’s no tracking of it,” Hopper said. “They’re just stealing water from the rest of us, costing us thousands of dollars to deepen new wells.”