Pot fields in Columbia Basin, Yakima Valley might lack irrigation water

Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldApril 14, 2014 

Prospective marijuana farmers might hit a potentially significant hurdle if they try to farm the newly legal crop in the Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley -- no irrigation water.

Area irrigation districts said federal Bureau of Reclamation officials are telling them that federal project water can't be used to grow pot.

That could have a wide impact, since many irrigation districts that deliver water from the Columbia and Yakima rivers do so through contracts with the Bureau of Reclamation.

Irrigation districts that contract with the bureau to deliver water to farmers across the region include the Kennewick, Roza, Sunnyside Valley, East Columbia Basin, South Columbia Basin and Quincy Columbia Basin irrigation districts and the Kittitas Reclamation District.

In the meantime, the state Liquor Control Board is issuing the first licenses to grow and process pot in Benton County.

Statewide, 10 licenses have been issued, with five more that will be complete after the licensees pay the $1,000 fee, said Mikhail Carpenter, liquor control board spokesman. Of those, one company -- O2 Sun, owned by Scott Masengill of Seattle -- has received a license to grow and process marijuana in Benton City. Another license for a Prosser business is among those pending.

The process has been slow because a number of applicants are not ready to operate, and the liquor control board can't issue a license unless someone is set up and ready to go, Carpenter said.

The state received 76 licenses to grow marijuana in Benton and Franklin countie, as well as 52 to process pot and 43 to sell it.

Kennewick, Pasco, Richland, West Richland, Connell and Franklin County all have temporary bans in place to prevent marijuana retailers, growers and processors from opening. Prosser and Benton County are allowing recreational marijuana-related businesses licensed by the state.

Licenses still will be issued to growers who meet all state requirements under the new law created by Initiative 502 even if the local irrigation district can't provide water, Carpenter said. The state will do the same even if local bans are in place.

The Bureau of Reclamation has yet to make a formal announcement on whether water provided to irrigation districts through contracts with the bureau can be used to grow pot.

Venetia Gempler, bureau spokeswoman, said the bureau still is evaluating how the federal Controlled Substances Act applies in the context of Reclamation project water. No decision has been made yet, she said.

But irrigation districts have been asking, especially since some are getting inquires from prospective pot growers.

"There is uncertainty and we think that it is not going to be allowed based on our discussions with Reclamation to date," said Scott Revell, Roza Irrigation District manager.

Revell recently sent a letter to the Benton and Yakima county commissioners about the issue.

Jim Trull, Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District manager, said he still is waiting on the official word from the bureau.

Kennewick Irrigation District manager Chuck Freeman said the district has to follow bureau rules.

But he is concerned about whether the bureau would legally defend irrigation districts if they are sued for failing to deliver water to a pot farmer.

The Columbia Irrigation District would be unaffected, whatever the Bureau of Reclamation decides. Joel Teeley, CID's general manager and board secretary, said the irrigation district has senior water rights for the Yakima River from the state.

"It's a non-issue here," he said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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