California’s Desert Marijuana Mega-Grows Confront the Obvious

4 Hot Pot Products: October 2017

Two hours east of Los Angeles, in the dusty and flat desert of the Coachella Valley, is the future of the regional marijuana industry. A collection of once-desolate burgs are now boomtowns. All available real estate has been snapped up by outside investors, thanks to them becoming cannabis’s little “piece of heaven.”

Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City and the city of Coachella itself have all opened up their doors to the burgeoning multi-billion-dollar cannabis industry by writing laws explicitly allowing large-scale commercial cultivation and sales—and all this before voters approved recreational marijuana in November.

There’s just one problem.

It doesn’t rain much in the Coachella Valley. And in Desert Hot Springs, there are no rivers or lakes to speak of. Beneath the desert, there is water—a groundwater aquifer that’s been steadily depleted for decades. Which is good, because cannabis plants need water. But whether or not there will be enough water for both the city’s residents—and its burgeoning marijuana industry—is an open question.

As Water Deeply reported, local officials and the local marijuana industry insist that there’s both enough water to go around and that the cannabis mega-grows to come will use it responsibly.

At the same time, local water use projections require the importation of surface water from other areas to keep up with an “overdraft” of groundwater—and long-term use projections don’t take into account a massive demand from cannabis.

During the height of California’s five-year drought, a study conducted by NASA scientists concluded that the groundwater level in the Coachella Valley had dropped by 62 feet since 1960, as the Desert Sun reported. Groundwater there is so depleted that the land is literally collapsing—in some areas, by as much as two feet in 15 years, according to the Department of the Interior.

Put simply, the Coachella Valley is using too much water too quickly.

Water use is “unsustainable,” and has been for a long time. Scientists who study this issue suggest simple solutions, like not using water. For instance, no lawns or golf courses. What they did not recommend were massive marijuana grows, but they’re going to get them.

The marijuana growers themselves all promise to be extremely tightfisted with their water. According to Water Deeply, they’ll use “frugal drip irrigation systems” and, after watering the plants, they’ll reuse that same water to water them again, “recycling it multiple times using reverse osmosis systems.” Even the humidity will be collected and then used to meet plants’ water needs.

How much water will Desert Hot Springs’ cannabis bounty require?

One grow interviewed by Water Deeply plans a 30,000-square-foot grow, with 10,000 plants grown year-round. A grow that size will require enough water to supply 16 households. Other grow facilities, however, are planned that are as big as one million square feet—or more than 30 times as big. And as of now, there are more than 40 cannabis facilities planned, approved or under construction in Desert Hot Springs.

At the same time, there are also many other high-demand water customers in the area, which includes Hollywood resort town Palm Springs. Most of them are golf courses.

“An 18-hole golf course uses four to five times the amount of water one of these large cultivators would use,” a buoyantly confident Mayor Scott Matas told Water Deeply. “We don’t think it’s going to impact our aquifers.”

A spokesman for the Mission Springs Water District likewise believes that demand from the cannabis industry won’t outstrip supply.

How? By making it rain? There is simply no way suddenly and massively cultivating a water-hungry plant will have no impact on aquifers—unless a) the aquifers are replenished or b) everyone else around the cannabis warehouses quit using water.

As the local water authority wrote last June, “groundwater production continues to exceed groundwater replenishment.” This was before the drought ended, but this was also before the massive marijuana operations started coming to town.

Meanwhile, the population of Desert Hot Springs is also projected to double in size over the next 25 years—and if skyrocketing demand for the local marijuana industry thrives, it may grow bigger and more quickly. Something will have to give.

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