As water use complaints and violations landed on the radar of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the state decided to lean in and see if an educational approach might help course-correct the burgeoning industry. A recent audit of hemp farms’ water sources shed light on the problem: About a third of licensed hemp farmers who received a visit from the state were found to be in some form of violation.
“The Oregon Department of Agriculture had received a number of concerns over time about water use on this particular crop in a somewhat unprecedented way,” said Scott Prose, assistant watermaster for the Oregon Water Resources Department's Southwest Region. “So, they wanted to do research and see how bad the problem was.”
It’s just the start of a broader initiative to align the hemp industry within the context of Oregon’s environmental regulations.
“People need to do research,” Prose said. “They need to know their water rights before they plant, and they need to know their options.”
It’s something that the state asks prospective hemp growers directly in the licensing process. Can you identify a proper source of water? One for which you can cite your right to access?
The ramifications of water violations depend on the watershed and the surrounding community. For example, improper use of a well without that groundwater right could negatively impact neighbors who might be using that water to brush their teeth.
There’s also the matter of disputes over water rights, in which one farmer may have a long-standing claim to water source that’s being challenged by a newer entrant in the field.
Or diverting a creek—that’s a more obvious violation. This could affect other users potentially, but it could also have a clear impact on the in-stream rights of, say, fish.
The most common violation (among the 20% of hemp farms that landed in the audit), according to Prose, was well use without the proper water right.
Now, as the state begins to identify these violations, a crucial education component can begin in earnest.
“When I have a conversation with people, we talk about options for moving toward compliance,” he said. “We’re not here just for punitive [measures]. It’s really an education, getting people into compliance and giving them options for the future. Sometimes there are no economically viable options, though. Water is a limited resource.”
Trucking water in to run a 50-acre hemp farm is technically an option, he pointed out, but it’s not something that most business owners are going to embrace as a reasonable solution. This is where the front-end planning becomes critical for anyone interested in getting into the hemp space. Locating a proper water source is an integral part of the process.
As for the future, there will be another audit in Oregon.
“People who had violations in the past—or they were doing something we needed to talk about—I'll probably be checking in on them again this year, me or other staff members,” Prose said. “I'm excited because I think it will give us a chance to show the data of how effective education really is for sites that we've been to and tried to help people out and show them options. We're going to see if they really take to those options or if they just decided to violate again.”
To prepare for audit visits in Oregon, hemp farmers should have their license handy. The state agriculture department includes a place on that license—Section 11—for declaring water rights. That’s what Prose and his team will be looking for.