Cannabis proposals tackle New Mexico's irrigation issues, would add water protections
ALBUQUERQUE - In New Mexico, it is illegal to irrigate cannabis or other crops with domestic well water. But the Department of Health license application for medical cannabis producers does not require proof of commercial water rights, which are necessary to grow an agricultural product for commercial use.
Two bills in the Legislature aim to bridge that regulatory gap.
House Bill 169, Water Rights for Cannabis Production, would add water protections to the current program.
"This is a good faith effort to support medical cannabis and ensure that producers are following water use requirements," said bill sponsor Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos. "Cannabis producers aren't the only water users who need to observe these restrictions. But this could come up in other rural communities, especially if we expand to recreational legalization."
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HB 169 would require current and future cannabis farmers to show that their irrigation water stems from a valid water right. The Office of the State Engineer determines validity and decides whether the water use would impair the community.
Chandler's bill was drafted after board members of two water systems in Sandoval County informed lawmakers that domestic well water use had skyrocketed on two cannabis farms. The proposed legislation addresses some of the board members' concerns.
"Even if a valid water right exists, the local system may not be able to support that increase in water use," said John Gurule, president of the Peña Blanca Water and Sanitation District. "My questions revolve around when in the application process the local water entity will be contacted, and if we will have the support from the Office of the State Engineer to determine if that water supply is there."
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Gurule said the Peña Blanca farm owner has been neighborly but is adamant that the property is following water laws.
"That still doesn't explain why we had those high meter readings for several months," Gurule said. "We're hopeful this can be addressed, but we're not out of the woods yet."
Senate Bill 115, the Cannabis Regulation Act, which proposes to legalize recreational cannabis in New Mexico, also would require proof of water rights and a commercial water supply or another sufficient water source.
"Protecting New Mexico's natural resources, including water, is of utmost importance," bill sponsor Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said in an emailed statement. "Since recreational cannabis is considered an agricultural crop like chile, hemp or pecans, licensees should follow the same rules and water policy as other agricultural commodities."
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Under SB 115, the state Agriculture and Environment departments would ensure cannabis production follows existing state laws about water quality, pesticide use and wastewater discharge.
Cannabis producers would also include plans in their applications to adopt water-saving strategies such as drip irrigation.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.