Charles Cook and Suezan Hill-Cook didn’t think much of a medical marijuana growing operation when it set up shop next to their quiet home northeast of Redmond in 2015. Over the next few years, however, they and other residents of the Lake Park Estates subdivision grew increasingly frustrated with the noise, smells and traffic that come with a cannabis operation.
Then, during the hottest part of last summer, the well the couple relies on for water went dry — and they blamed the marijuana growing operation.
“That was the last straw,” Hill-Cook said.
The couple spent the following three weeks asking their neighbors for water and showering at Redmond’s Cascade Swim Center. When they eventually found a contractor to re-dig and replace the well, it cost more than $18,000.
Attempts to get answers from state water officials about the marijuana growing facility’s impact have only caused more confusion, the couple said.
“It’s shocking to hear the total lack of information from all the sources we’ve sought information from,” Cook said.
The couple’s claim is far from unique in Deschutes County. In areas of the county where cannabis operations have sprung up, anecdotal reports of wells running dry have quickly followed. While a state investigation determined that growing operations had a relatively limited effect on groundwater near Tumalo, that hasn’t stopped rural Deschutes County residents from drawing a connection between uses.
After Measure 91 legalized recreational cannabis in November 2014, subsequent legislation defined it as a farm crop, to be protected under Oregon’s Right to Farm laws and subject to Oregon’s agricultural water quality rules. Deschutes County code requires a business looking to grow marijuana to provide a water right permit, a statement that water is available from a public or private water provider, or proof from the Oregon Water Resources Department that the property does not require a water right.
Some Deschutes County growers hoping to break into the recreational market in Deschutes County eschew traditional irrigation water, which is typically available only from April to October. Instead, some growers have secured rights to use groundwater to grow cannabis year-round.
In 2017, Bill Tye, a longtime Alfalfa resident with a background in water management, began looking into the impacts stemming from cannabis operations in response to one proposed near his home. In doing so, Tye, who died in January, found that water levels throughout the neighborhood had plummeted since recreational marijuana became legal in Oregon and provided written testimony on an appeal of the marijuana application near his home in 2018.
Between 2015 and 2017, seven domestic wells in the Alfalfa area had to be re-drilled and deepened. The three-year window accounts for nearly a third of all wells that had been deepened in the area since 1975.
“The deepenings speak for themselves,” Tye’s testimony reads.
However, state and federal research has largely come to a different conclusion. While everyone agrees that groundwater levels are declining in parts of the county, the recent declines are part of a larger trend.
A 2013 study from the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that parts of the Deschutes Basin saw water level declines of up to 14 feet between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, years before recreational marijuana was legalized.
In response to concerns expressed by the Deschutes County Commission, the Oregon Water Resources Department investigated 11 marijuana growers near Tumalo during the summer of 2018. Central Oregon Watermaster Jeremy Giffin, who conducted the investigation, concluded the handful of growing operations that had gotten up and running in the area had a very small impact on the overall decline in groundwater levels.
“At the end of day, we were surprised at how little water they were using,” Giffin said.
Giffin attributed the declines to a prolonged period of dry weather, which has resulted in less snowmelt replenishing the region’s groundwater supply, along with more people using the groundwater in rural Deschutes County and less water seeping into the system as more irrigation canals get piped.
He said the average marijuana grower uses about 3,000 gallons of groundwater per day, significantly more than most homes, but less than many agricultural uses.
“That is just a drop in the bucket,” Giffin said.
Andrew Anderson, owner of Plantae Health, which grows recreational marijuana, said the company’s operation east of Bend uses between 1,500 and 3,000 gallons per day, a small fraction of what similar amounts of hay and alfalfa take to grow.
“Our water conservation is absolutely insane,” Anderson said.
He said even marijuana growing operations that have permission from the county to haul water don’t always use it. Plantae has primarily relied on irrigation water since getting up and running, only beginning to use groundwater at the start of the year. He dismissed the claims of marijuana using lots of water as myths.
“I think people just don’t like cannabis in general,” Anderson said.
For their part, Cook and Hill-Cook maintain that the nearby medical growing operation played a significant role in causing their well to go dry. Cook said the static water level for their well had dropped more than 60 feet since he moved to the area in the early 1990s, and he believes the decline has intensified in recent years.
While the deepest well in the neighborhood is 390 feet, Hill had the contractor drill down to 405 feet.
“I wanna be deeper than everybody else because I’m 70 years old and I don’t want to run out of water again,” Cook said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7818, firstname.lastname@example.org