As drought conditions worsen, there is a strain for water among cannabis farms. Photo by seamind224.
The current drought in the U.S. has caused one of the driest summers in quite some time. In the West, about 95% of the land is dry; as a result, scientists are calling it a megadrought, according to The New York Times. Reduction in water supply has placed a big strain on U.S agriculture. Consequently, farmers — including cannabis farmers — are seriously reconsidering how they should conserve their water usage.
Growing Indoors vs Outdoors
Since the boom of the cannabis industry, corporations have been taking over the market with a majority of farms located indoors, as seen in a 2020 State of the Cannabis Cultivation Industry report from Cannabis Business Times. Many of these farms advertise themselves to be the frontier of efficiency and sustainability by using buzzwords like vertical farming and hydroponic systems. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
When cultivators grow cannabis in indoor facilities located near dense populations, it puts strains on resources like water and energy. Even with highly efficient solar panels and conservative hydroponic systems, large scale indoor farms have never been as sustainable as smaller scale outdoor farms, according to reports from MJbizdaily.
Mission Cannabis Club, a longstanding San Francisco cannabis club, explains how wasteful water used in indoor facilities can be. For example, indoor farms produce a lot of wastewater that they need to filter before reintroducing it to local waterways. To compare, outdoor farms can return their water to the earth where it is naturally filtered and can be easily obtained. This makes it possible for growers to have a conserved water system where they can collect and reuse any excess water.
Water Usage at a Small Outdoor Farm
With drought conditions depleting our water sources, water conservation should be at the forefront of every farm’s operations.
To get an inside look on how the drought is impacting cannabis farmers, we talked with Lex Corwin. Corwin is the founder of the sun-grown cannabis brand, Stone Road.
Stone Road is a family-owned farm in Nevada City, California that embodies social justice and sustainability. They use a fully organic approach on their farm and grow all their crops outside. To further conserve water, they use shallow planting beds and stay on top of mulching, which reduces evaporation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
At Stone Road, they have plenty of resources to provide themselves with their own water. From their 460-foot-deep well, to their reservoirs, to their water collectors — they can use water from the ground, from the snow, and even pull it out of the air.
Corwin’s farm goes above and beyond in their conservation of resources. Even still, they have felt the effects of the drought. Their area has an annual dry season, but recent years have led them to search for more ways to access and store water.
The Fight for Smaller Farms
Many of the requirements to sell cannabis commercially favors wealthier corporations who join the cannabis industry for their love of a different green; money. These businesses are looking to make quick profits while ignoring the need for sustainable measures. This leads to wastefully-grown products that are cheaply made.
With so many large scale farms popping up, it makes sense why Forbes says there is a rough estimate of three times as much cannabis being produced than can be legally consumed in California. With so much energy, space, and water needed to support these larger farms, Earth911 highlights that they are less sustainable than smaller farms.
Michael Polsen is an anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher in environmental science, policy and management. He explains how bigger companies have been operating with multiple licenses in the UC Berkeley blog post, Don’t let big Agriculture Squeeze out Small Cannabis Farms. These bigger companies not only put a strain on environmental resources, such as water; but they also out-compete with smaller and more sustainable farms, he explains.
“As research shows, agriculture sectors that have numerous small farmers are better able to sustain rural communities and healthy environments, particularly when farmers actively participate in policy making, stewardship and community life,” Polsen writes. “Small cannabis farming, however, is being undermined.”
Water Restraints Within the Cannabis Industry
Even before the current drought, there was already criticism towards the consumption of water for cannabis cultivation. A Washington Post article from 2015 titled, Forget Almonds: Look at how Much Water California’s pot Growers use, describes cannabis as “thirsty” as crops such as almonds and corn.
“It is too easy to point the finger and blame the cannabis industry,” Natalynne Delapp, executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance in Northern California, tells Emerald.
The issue of water is not new for the cannabis industry. Cannabis receives a fractional amount of water compared to other types of agriculture grown in California as seen in Delapp’s report, Planning for Drought Resilience in Humboldt Cannabis: A Proposal for Water Storage.
People are quick to see dried up rivers and lakes. Consequently, they decide that cannabis farms are water-wasters who need to stop receiving water. However, as illustrated above, other types of agriculture are seemingly more likely, to use large amounts of water.
Make the Change
Organic living soils, drip lines, shallow beds, and mulch are good starts towards water conservation. But sustainable cultivation only does so much. The problem relies within policies. Proper regulation is still tricky because cannabis is still federally illegal. Cannabis farmers operate under state policies. But in places like California, officials don’t full regulate ground-water. California Agriculture states, “currently, most California groundwater basins are unmanaged and extractions from basins are unmeasured.“
Cannabis farms also face restraints on water despite being less wasteful compared to many other agriculture types. Many of the reasons for such strict restraints on water usage for cannabis farms is due to outdated information. With our rapidly changing climate rules and regulations for water need change too.
It is obvious that change is needed. As drought conditions worsen, there is a strain for water among cannabis farms.
When asked how we can change the way the cannabis industry operates, the answer seems simple. “You vote with your dollar,” says Lex. But, “it can be hard to match your ethos to your brand,” he adds.
Now more than ever, it is important to do research on where cannabis comes from. If we are not careful of which companies we support, it is possible that we will lose smaller farms that care about their product and the environment.
As such, it is vital to stand against the companies and the policies that threaten a sustainable future for cannabis. The time to change our water consumption is now because otherwise it will be too late. Why not start the change with cannabis?
Written by Bryce Radar