California Desert Town Prepares for Recreational Cannabis Grows Despite Water Drought
Cannabis cultivation is poised to become a lucrative industry in Southern California’s Desert Hot Springs, but the depletion of groundwater could worsen as a result.
Published on April 4, 2017

As California ramps up for the recreational cannabis market to take effect, the state is expecting an overwhelming amount of cash and crops to be generated when retail marijuana hits the shelves in 2018. 

Since Prop. 64 passed in November, the so-called ‘desert towns’ in Southern California have been attempting to position themselves in the market. Municipalities like Desert Hot Springs, a small town about 100 miles outside of Los Angeles, are preparing for industrial-scale grow operations to flourish in their dry region.     

Although legalization stands to benefit The Golden State in a variety of ways, one negative aspect that has been arguably understated is the impact that the cannabis boom will have on California’s vastly depleted water supply. 

According to Water DeeplyScott Matas, the mayor of Desert Hot Springs, is not overly concerned about the water consumption that large-scale cultivation will require, as cannabis growers in the town will buy water from the Mission Springs Water District local water and sewage treatment utility. 

Currently, this water supplier strictly utilizes groundwater to meet its customers' demands, but have yet to serve an agricultural sector like marijuana. Without proper research at hand, it’s difficult to gauge how much water a cannabis plant truly requires. 

One study by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife showed that a single outdoor plant can consume up to six gallons of water per day. Local industry leaders have rejected the study, countering that one crop needs a daily dosage of two gallons at most. With most grow operations expected to be indoors, this will allow much more control over the water supply. 

John Soulliere, the Mission Springs Water District spokesman, thinks that excessive water usage will regulate itself. Just like any other utility customer, marijuana growers will obtain a water connection dependent on the size of their operation, and will pay a metered water bill. 

Soulliere believes that cultivators who are wasteful with water will be faced with enormous bills, thus driving up the price of their product, and effectively driving them out of business.

To avoid overages on water use, the most popular irrigation method for California growers will be a frugal drip system. They plan to recycle all drain water from the plants, using reverse osmosis systems to freshen it up for use again. Cultivators will also set up systems to capture humidity emitted from the cannabis plants, channeling it directly into the water supply system. Growers could also legally dig down and create their own water wells, but that would require an extremely costly drilling operation. 

One potential issue that could arise for growers is when returning the drain water back into the sewage treatment center. The Mission Springs Water District will require cultivators to submit verified testing reports every month, detailing any contaminants from fertilizers and pesticides. If their activity increases the water district’s treatment cost, then hefty fines could be levied against growers.   

As you can see, despite the severe groundwater depletion in areas like Desert Hot Springs, the resilient industry is preparing for ways to keep plants growing and water usage at a minimum. At the end of the day, cultivators who are careless with their water supply will likely drive themselves out of business, while more conservative approaches will thrive.    

Tyler Koslow
Tyler Koslow is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with an intensive focus on technology, music, pop culture, and of course, cannabis and its impending legalization.
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