WASHINGTON -- Newly licensed marijuana growers in Washington might find themselves without a key source of water just as spring planting gets under way.
Federal officials say they'll decide quickly whether the U.S. government can provide water for the growers or whether doing so would violate the federal Controlled Substances Act, which makes possession of the drug illegal.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the water supply for two-thirds of Washington's irrigated land, is expected to make a decision by early May, and perhaps as soon as this week, said Dan DuBray, the agency's chief spokesman.
The ruling will mark another key test for the Obama administration, which again will decide how far it will go in allowing the state to bypass federal law with its experimental plan to license growers and sell pot for recreational use.
The government's decision also will affect growers in Colorado -- the only other state to fully legalize marijuana -- but would likely have limited impact there because Colorado allows only indoor pot farms.
While the administration so far has done nothing to block either state, some local officials predict the Bureau of Reclamation is sure to rule that the water cannot be used on marijuana plants, since the drug has been banned by Congress.
"I'm almost certain that's what they're going to tell us," said Scott Revell, district manager for the Roza Irrigation District in Washington, which contracts with the federal agency to provide water to about 72,000 acres in the Yakima Valley.
Such a decision would mark a clear victory for legalization opponents, but they say it should not be unexpected.
"I don't think we should be too surprised that people who are breaking federal law cannot access federally controlled water," said Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy adviser for President Obama who's the director of the anti-legalization group Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). "This is the kind of thing that happens when sloppy state laws pass and you try to fit a square peg in a round hole."
State officials already are discussing other ways that growers could get their water.
While most of the growing operations are expected to be fairly small -- the largest will be only two-thirds the size of a football field -- growers might be able to drill their own wells or tap into a city water supply, said Joye Redfield-Wilder, spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology. Under state law, greenhouse growers can use well water if their operations use no more than 5,000 gallons of water per day, she said.
"It may or may not be a problem at all," Redfield-Wilder said. "I think we're just kind of in a gray area. I think the federal government is a little bit in that gray area too."
With marijuana being so valuable, licensed growers won't be deterred by the federal government, said Alan Schreiber, a Franklin County farmer who has applied for a license to grow marijuana for pest-control research.
"This is an annoyance and a nuisance but I can assure you -- I can assure you -- they will find water for this," Schreiber said. "Water, relatively speaking, is not that expensive. You can get it from a well. You can find somebody. There's wells everywhere around here."
Schreiber said he relies on federal water for his operation, which has included asparagus, peaches, grapes and raspberries.
"I have a lot of crops. Are they going to come on my farm and monitor my water use?" Schreiber asked.
Revell said his water district has not yet figured out how to deal with farmers growing multiple crops.
"These kinds of details have not been fleshed out," he said.
The Bureau of Reclamation is a key federal agency in the West, best known for the dams, canals and power plants it has built in 17 states. Created in 1902 to promote economic development, it's now part of the Department of Interior and delivers water to more than 31 million people and one out of every five Western farmers. It contracts with local irrigation districts to provide the water.
DuBray said the bureau is working with the Justice Department on its legal analysis, which he said was prompted by requests from local officials in Washington and Colorado. Voters in both states decided to legalize marijuana for recreational use in November 2012.
"We're having a lot of discussions about this issue," DuBray said.
With the state moving slowly to implement its plan, the issue has aroused little opposition among growers. As of Tuesday, only 18 growers had been licensed by the state. But the potential disruption could be huge, after the state received more than 2,700 applications in November and December.
The issue also has stirred little interest on Capitol Hill, with most members of the Washington delegation saying they've not taken a position or are not involved. Spokesmen for the state's Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, had no comment.
One exception: Democratic Rep. Adam Smith defended the growers and renewed his call for Congress to pass a law that would force the federal government to abide by the wishes of state voters in setting marijuana policy.
"The only way to ensure that state law as it pertains to marijuana is recognized is by passing the Respect for State Marijuana Laws Act," said Smith, one of 26 House members who's co-sponsoring the bill authored by Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California.
-- Jordan Schrader of The News Tribune in Tacoma contributed to this report.