Agriculture is the biggest water user on the planet. More than 70% of the world’s freshwater supply is used to feed crops, according to the World Bank.
In the U.S., that number is closer to 80% or 90%—especially in western states. That’s because California farmers grow a majority of the nation’s food. The state produces one-third of our vegetables, and two-thirds of the country’s fruit and nut supplies, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).
A majority of the nation’s cannabis is also grown in the Golden State.
Drought is a major concern for all of the state’s farmers. But, cannabis cultivators often get a bad wrap when it comes to this precious resource.
A Thirsty Industry, or a Sustainable Crop?
That poor reputation is not entirely unwarranted.
For decades, some illegal growers polluted the land, and stole from local waterways. In the Emerald Triangle, an influx of these growers—colloquially known as bad actors—arrived in Northern California hillsides as part of the Green Rush.
While many of the region’s back-to-the-landers practiced sustainable values and a reverence for the land—the bad actors, “diverted water from the rivers to irrigate their crops,” reports the New Yorker’s Emily Witt. “They dumped pesticides into the watershed. They grew plants in national forests and state parks [and] they flattened mountaintops.”
But there are many legitimate growers with a history of practicing sustainable cultivation methods.
Legalization has brought forth extensive water regulations for the industry. The policies, which protect against diverting water or discharging waste, are said to be stricter than those placed on any other form of agriculture.
Ultimately, cannabis growers shouldn’t be the scapegoats for the state’s water crisis, writes Swami Chaitanya of Swami Select in Marijuana Venture.
In fact, many believe that focusing on the crop’s water consumption is misdirected.
For instance, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) suggests that one cannabis plant requires 6 gallons of water per day. Industry experts, however, find plants need 1-3 gallons per day in order to produce 1 pound of cured buds, depending on the climate it’s grown in.
That’s far lower than officials estimate. And far less water than other, large scale crops, notes Chaitanya. “Each eighth [of cannabis] requires 1.875 gallons of water.” Whereas beef, he adds, “requires at least 1,500 gallons of water; Wine uses between 180-400 gallons per bottle; Almonds need […] 100 gallons per can, broccoli takes about 5 gallons per head and avocados about 75 gallons per pound.”
How Does Cannabis use Water?
Like a fine cuppa coffee or a glass of wine, the water a product is made or grown with matters. Cannabis is no different.
“Water is one of the most important and overlooked parameters of a grow,” explains Dust, co-founder of Green House Seeds, and member of Strain Hunters, an international team of experts.
In most cases, “[water] will be one of the only vessels to transport the nutrients your plant needs to keep growing correctly its whole cycle,” he adds.
Water, by itself, will not define a good smoke or a good grow, says Dust. But, it is one of the most important aspects of cultivating good cannabis.
Unfortunately, most people do not realize how foundational having clean water is, he explains. No matter what medium you use—hydro, aero or soil, “the water will be in direct contact with one of the most sensitive parts of the plant; the root zone.”
Clean water helps safeguard plants against bacterial or fungicide problems. It also ensures that plants will not absorb unwanted chemicals, or heavy metals, Dust explains. That’s particularly important, considering many cannabis products are smoked, consumed, or absorbed by our bodies.
Through the Landrace Lens
Nearly 90% of the cannabis plant is made up of water, according to Royal Queen Seeds, a European breeding company. The plant uses it in a number of ways to live and grow.
According to Maximum Yield, Landrace strains have been selectively bred by humans; adapted to their environments; and developed, “distinct genetic traits and characteristics unique to their respective homes.”
Altitude, temperature, latitude, and the amount of water in the climate plays a role in the development of these strains, says Dust.
For instance, higher humidity levels—i.e. the concentration of water in the air—usually favor a thinner bud structure with thinner leaflets.
Dust says that this is likely the plant’s natural response to fight against mold. Thinner buds and leaves, he explains, can help prevent water from getting stuck in the buds, and allows more airflow into the plant and its flowers.
Wet, or particularly humid environments can be optimal for the plant, explains Dust. “Having a significant amount of water in the environment would also usually mean having [lots of] biodiversity, and much more elements decomposing in the ground.”
“That’s perfect for the plant,” he says, because in dry, desert-like atmospheres, plants and animals have to struggle for survival.
“This would result in naturally having bigger plants in humid environments like the equator, against some shorter plants in dry conditions like in North Africa,” says Dust.
A Crisis of Management
Like the cannabis plant so vividly shows us, water matters—but, clean water matters most.
The world is currently facing a clean water crisis. Today, more than 1 billion people are living without access to clean water.
The issue is not about having too little water, reports the World Water Council. “It is a crisis of managing water so badly that billions of people— and the environment—suffer badly.”
One region where this is most apparent is the Middle East, where countries like Qatar and Israel are learning to squeeze more from every drop of water.
In 2013, Israel went from being one of the driest places on earth, to having a surplus of water, reports Scientific American, thanks to a national water conservation campaign, and a wave of desalination plants.
Desalination is the process of removing minerals and salts from substances—like water. In Israel, the Sorek Desalination Plant—one of the world’s largest desalination plants—pumps seawater from the Medeterainean, and transforms it into drinking water for more than 1.5 million people.
Israel’s desalination plants helped bring the country back from the brink of catastrophe. A decade ago, the country suffered one of its worst droughts.
During this time, “Israel’s largest source of freshwater, the Sea of Galilee, had dropped to within inches of the “black line” at which irreversible salt infiltration would flood the lake and ruin it forever,” according to Scientific American.
Now, the lake is starting to fill up, thanks to increased water supplies, which means farmers don’t have to pull as much from waterways. In fact, nearly 80% of Israel’s water now comes from these plants.
The cannabis industry is also making efforts to be more water-wise. Some are more sustainable than others.
Rainwater catchment systems are among the most sustainable. Many outdoor growers in Northern California rely on rainwater, “which often naturally contains minerals at levels that can be beneficial to cannabis,” according to MJBizDaily’s special report, Best Practices in Cannabis Cultivation.
But indoor growers—especially in urban areas—have more hurdles when sourcing water.
“Straight-from-the-tap city water contains too many unknowns, including chlorine and other contaminants,” the report finds. They must rely on other methods to source clean water—like reverse osmosis filtration systems.
Hydroponic systems are among, “the most efficient and sustainable methods,” for indoor grows, according to Cannabis and Tech Today, which adds that these systems can, “reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides.”
Moreover, “hydroponically grown plants grow faster and can reduce water consumption by up to 90% as opposed to traditional agricultural methods,” reports Powerhouse Hydroponics.
Using reclaimed, or grey water, is also a popular method used by indoor cannabis growers.
MedCare Farms, a craft cannabis co-operative headquartered in Riverside County, California, for example, uses recycled water to feed their plants.
That water is collected from condensation in A/C units, which is then put back into water tanks used to irrigate plants, explains Garin Heslop, founder of MedCare Farms. Other companies have slashed their water usage by more than half using similar methods.
Garden Remedies, a Massachusetts cannabis company, for example, also collects excess condensation from HVAC units, and re-routes the water back to plants, according to Cannabis Business Times. Roughly 85% of its water is recycled through this process.
A Water-Wise no Brainer
Hemp is one commodity that’s reported to boost state wide economies, and reduce water usage.
According to the University of Arizona’s Wet Project, which aims to promote responsible water usage, hemp garners more revenue per acre than crops like almonds, or alfalfa. In fact, some hemp farmers report making $90,000 per acre for plants used for CBD oils. Alfalfa, on the other hand, earns approximately $600 per acre, reports Water Deeply, a media project committed to covering the water crisis in America.
But, money isn’t the only incentive for farmers to grow hemp. The plant is known to grow well in different types of temperatures and soils. It requires little pesticides or fertilizer, and doesn’t deplete soil.
Plus, it grows quickly, and delivers a high yield—up to four fruitful harvests per year. Those yields can be used for anything from food, to fuel, to bioplastics, and clothing.
Whether or not hemp requires less water per acre to grow than other crops is not exactly clear. Hemp farmers in Colorado, for instance, are finding the crop needs more water than previously thought.
For instance, Brian Campbell, Colorado resident, tells MJBizDaily that he compared the growth of two hemp plants: one with regular irrigation, and the other in drought conditions. “The irrigated plants yielded a healthy average of 1,100 pounds of seed per acre, with some acres producing more than 2,000 pounds […],” Campbell reports. “The nonirrigated hemp plants yielded an average of just 400 pounds of seed per acre.”
Geoff Whaling, chairman of the National Hemp Association, tells Water Deeply that, generally speaking, hemp needs a lot of water for the first three weeks of its life. “But, once it kind of passes its early development stage,” he adds, “it becomes one of the most drought-tolerant crops on the planet.”
A commonly cited study from the Stockholm Environment Institute compared the ecological footprint and water usage of hemp, cotton, and polyester.
The study found that when it comes to textiles, “hemp had a lower impact in terms of water, energy and the ecological footprint,” which measure CO2 emissions.
That’s, in part, because hemp is typically grown in regions where it’s sufficiently watered by rainfall. Cotton, however, is grown in dry regions, like Egypt and India, where there isn’t enough rainfall. Too supplement, water is pulled from already stressed water systems.
Where hemp really shines is as a low-maintenance crop. Overall, it requires less land, and less chemicals to grow. The crop can also be sustained almost entirely by rainfall, toot. If it replaces larger crops, it could free up a lot of precious resources.
If there is anything the world crisis has taught us is that in order to increase freshwater supplies, the agricultural industry desperately needs better management practices. Cannabis growers have shown us that this is very much possible.
This article was published in The Emerald Magazine’s EARTH edition.