The Deschutes County Commission is moving forward on its plan to revisit its marijuana rules, starting with one of the thorniest aspects of the controversial crop.

As part of a series of public meetings with various stakeholder groups, the commission met with representatives from Central Oregon Irrigation District, Tumalo Irrigation District and Oregon Water Resources Department on Wednesday afternoon, in order to get industry insight into how federal, state and local water laws impact marijuana cultivation.

While any new regulations are a long way off, the comments from water officials helped the commission determine which of their rules for marijuana growers were sufficient, and which could require a significant overhaul.

“We’ve been asked some pretty tough questions, and we’ve been put on the spot trying to answer (questions) about water,” Commissioner Tony DeBone said.

In 2016, Deschutes County adopted ordinances designed to balance the needs of the county’s rural residents with the burgeoning marijuana industry. As a result, marijuana-related applications in rural parts of the county must meet regulations for a variety of topics, including water use. The code requires applicants to provide a water right permit, a statement that water is available from a public or private water provider, or proof from OWRD that the property does not require a water right.

Many marijuana growers in Deschutes County utilize irrigation water from Tumalo or Central Oregon irrigation districts, which service much of the county north of Bend. Chris Schull, watermaster for Tumalo Irrigation District, said his district is free to provide water for marijuana growers, after paying back money given to the federal government to build parts of its system.

However, Leslie Clark, water right manager for COID, was a bit cagier about the district’s ability to provide water for marijuana growers. During the meeting, Clark said the district serves anyone with an irrigation right who’s growing a crop that’s legal in Oregon. However, she declined to comment about the district’s plans, alluding to the recent elimination of the Cole Memo, a federal document that stipulated a hands-off approach to federal law enforcement in states with legal marijuana, as a reason for caution.

“In the last two weeks, there’s been some changes, and I think everyone’s a little unsure,” Clark said.

Even irrigation districts that allow water for marijuana growers only supply water during irrigation season, typically April 1 through Oct. 31 in Central Oregon. For that reason, growers often turn to municipal or quasi-municipal water sources outside the irrigation season, which has been a significant part of several marijuana-related appeals by unhappy neighbors.

In December, the county commission denied an application for a marijuana facility to the west of Redmond, in part, because of the amount of private water used outside of irrigation. Water law played a significant role in a hearing earlier on Wednesday, regarding an application to convert a medical marijuana production facility to a recreational operation.

While neighbors have expressed concerns about increased water use by marijuana growers driving up the price of water, Kyle Gorman, south central region manager for OWRD, said marijuana production would likely remain on “too small a scale” to price other farmers out of the market. He added that drier weather in recent years has been a larger factor than population growth in declining water supplies in the Deschutes Basin.

“Climate was the biggest driver of the changes we’re seeing in the aquifer,” Gorman said.

Gorman said that he’d like to see more collaboration between Deschutes County and his department on marijuana applications.

Going forward, the county commission has a public meeting scheduled with representatives from the Oregon Department on Wednesday , as well as tentative appointments with the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, slated for Jan. 22 and 29, respectively.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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