Oregon Wine Grape Growers Learn to Roll with Cannabis

Concerned about water rights, vineyard owners attempt to reach understanding

by Peter Mitham
wine grape oregon marijuana water
Vineyard owners claim that marijuana growers are taking groundwater for outdoor growing operations.
Medford, Ore.—It’s just before dawn, and the scent of a skunk wafts through the air of Southern Oregon on a late September morning. The cannabis harvest is near, and the weed’s distinctive aroma heralds the ripening bounty.

Veiled by 8-foot fences of newly milled wood, the cannabis plantations of the Rogue Valley and surrounding area represent jobs and economic opportunities to scores of people. Yet cannabis is still a federally controlled substance and subject to local government regulation. This has helped push many operators into unincorporated areas, often adjacent to the vineyards that have also drawn significant investment in recent years.

The result has put the noses of some viticulturists out of joint.

Where pear growers once resisted the spread of wine grape vineyards, local grapegrowers say the rise of cannabis production since voters approved recreational use in 2014 is impacting their water rights.

“It’s hard to get good data on that, but anecdotally I’ve heard stories from winegrowers who have senior surface water rights who have not been able to get their full water allotment because, they believe, of illegal water use by cannabis growers,” said Michael Gelardi, an attorney with Hershner Hunter LLP in Eugene, Ore., who specializes in land-use issues and water rights.

The tensions are particularly acute in the sun-drenched Rogue and Applegate valleys of Southern Oregon, which are more favorable for outdoor cannabis production than the Willamette Valley.

The counties surrounding Portland have long boasted the largest number of grow sites for medical marijuana, which became legal following a 1998 ballot initiative.

Oregon Health Authority statistics released in July 2016 identify 3,735 grow sites in Multnomah County, with a further 3,625 in neighboring Clackamas and Washington counties. Lane County in the southern Willamette claims a further 3,150, the second largest of any county in the state.

But in southern Oregon, Jackson and Josephine counties host 2,984 and 2,556 grow sites, respectively. Since voters cast ballots legalizing recreational marijuana use in 2014, Oregon Liquor Control Commission staff have licensed 145 active producers in the two counties—almost half the 300 active production licenses for non-medical marijuana the commission has issued.

Many of the sites are outdoors and off the municipal water systems that urban growers access. This, in turn, puts pressure on surface and groundwater resources.

“There’s less outdoor cannabis production in the Willamette Valley than in southern Oregon, and the large outdoor plants consume the most water,” Gelardi told Wines & Vines.

An analysis of water usage among growers in California’s Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties pegged the daily water demand of marijuana plants at 1 gallon of water per pound of bud produced, or between 100 and 150 gallons per season.

The findings of a 2010 report about California marijuana production suggests that the average plant yields 2.8 pounds of bud, with approximately 632 plants per acre. The basic water requirement for such a planting works out to at least 176,960 gallons per acre.

The demand means access to water is critical, and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission business guide for new producers clearly states: “You must obtain either a water use permit or acquire water from a provider such as a city or water district.”

Yet the legacy of guerrilla producers setting up on public land and accessing available water sources is creating tensions as a new crop of growers become part of the local economy.

“We have a huge new community that for years, because of regulatory practices and not being legal, haven’t been part of our mainstream community,” said Kara Olmo, co-owner of Wooldridge Creek Vineyard in the Applegate Valley west of Medford, Ore.

While this has reduced plantings on public lands and reduced the danger to users of those lands, it’s also sparked concern among those with mixed feelings about the social and environmental impacts of its production.

“We’re seeing increased concern over who has access to water rights and where they can grow and how much,” Olmo said. “OLCC and counties are still going through the regulatory process to figure out what’s legal, where.”

Complicating matters is that producers of cannabis for non-medical use face tighter regulations than medical cannabis producers, which have been allowed to operate without setbacks and often have significant security measures in place.

“We see these grows—or gardens, as people refer to them—that are right on school fence lines in these very visible but seemingly inappropriate locations and surrounded by guard dogs that are vicious in nature…and armed guards, in some cases,” she said, noting that her daughter’s elementary school is next to such a property. “Recreational is going to be treated much more like a farm product, with setbacks and all the things that we would associate with this type of product.”

Olmo is part of the Applegate Valley Vintners’ Association, which has met regularly with the Oregon SunGrown Growers’ Guild, which represents outdoor cannabis growers. She also sits on the land use and natural resources committee of the Oregon Winegrowers Association, which is listening to the concerns of growers.

Tom Danowski, CEO of the Oregon Winegrowers Association, says the association will continue to gather information prior to formally raising the issue with legislators. Any formal discussion will likely be in cooperation with other farm groups and not until 2018 at the earliest.

The tensions could deepen between now and then, however, as recreational production expands.

Right now, the majority of marijuana production in Oregon is for medical use, but licensing of recreational production is gathering steam. Oregon Liquor Control Commission staff are handling applications from more than 560 producers. Of these, 152 are in Jackson and Josephine counties.

Yet Michael Donovan, managing director at Irvine Vineyards in Ashland, believes the long-term outlook is positive. While growers have concerns about everything from resource use to the potential for crop taint from the scent of a neighboring marijuana grow site, he’s been impressed with the approach the new cannabis growers are taking.

“They’re very, very businesslike, and this is sizeable business,” he said. “There are far more ways that we can cooperate together with the cannabis growers than there are ways that are going to divide us.”

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