WASHINGTON — Delivering a blow to pot growers in Washington state and Colorado, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said Tuesday that it won’t allow any federally controlled water to be used on marijuana crops because Congress has banned the drug.
“As a federal agency, Reclamation is obligated to adhere to federal law in the conduct of its responsibilities to the American people,” said Dan DuBray, the agency’s chief of public affairs.
The ruling makes clear that the Obama administration is willing to set limits on the states’ legalization experiments, even though the Justice Department said in August that it wouldn’t block their plans to tax and sell the drug.
The decision might hit hardest in Washington state, as the federal agency controls the water supply for two-thirds of the state’s irrigated land.
“It’s the outcome we’d been told to expect,” said Scott Revell, the district manager for the Roza Irrigation District in Washington state, which contracts with the federal agency to provide water to roughly 72,000 acres in the Yakima Valley. He said the ruling would take effect immediately.
Alan Schreiber, a Franklin County, Wash., farmer who’s applied for a license to grow marijuana for pest-control research, called the ruling only an inconvenience for growers and said it wouldn’t stop them, given the high value of the crop.
According to his calculations, an acre of marijuana could be worth $7.4 million a year, based on a sales price of $3 per gram, four crops per year and the plants being grown 2 feet apart, each producing 1 ounce of pot. By comparison, he said, blueberries were the top-valued crop in Washington state in 2011, and were worth $17,000 per acre.
“That means cannabis is going to be 500 times more valuable than the most valuable crop in the state,” Schreiber said. “How hard do you think it would be, if you’re growing a crop for $7 million an acre, to get a 5,000-gallon tank of water and fill it every two weeks?”
Anticipating that the ruling may not go their way, Washington state officials had already been discussing other ways that growers could get water.
Joye Redfield-Wilder, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Ecology, said growers might be able to drill their own wells or tap into a city water supply. Under state law, greenhouse growers can use well water if their operations use no more than 5,000 gallons of water per day.
“These operations are fairly small,” Redfield-Wilder said, adding that growers might be subject to different regulations in different watersheds, depending on the availability of water. “There’s a lot of variables.”
DuBray said the agency’s policy would apply to all of its locations in the 17 Western states it serves, including states that have decriminalized or authorized the cultivation of marijuana.
Washington and Colorado are the only states that have approved marijuana for recreational use, while 21 states allow its use for medical purposes. In Colorado, growers will be less affected by the new ruling because the state allows only indoor pot farms.
DuBray said the Bureau of Reclamation would conduct its operations “in a manner that is consistent with the Controlled Substances Act,” the 1970 law that prohibits marijuana.
He said that if the agency became aware of any federally controlled water being used on marijuana crops, it would refer cases to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution.
Dan Riffle, the director of federal policies for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, said the ruling “underscores the absurdity behind federal marijuana laws and the need for Congress to fix them.”
“This decision says that because of the Controlled Substance Act, federally controlled water can’t be used to produce marijuana but can be used to produce more addictive, toxic and dangerous drugs like alcohol and tobacco,” he said. “I’m fine with the Bureau of Reclamation restricting water usage, but it should do so on the basis of sound science, not by deferring to outdated marijuana laws the public no longer supports.”
The water agency began making calls to Capitol Hill late Tuesday morning to inform members of Congress of its decision.
“I’m disappointed,” said Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, adding that voters in his state had decided to legalize marijuana “and their will should be respected.”
Smith said there would be similar conflicts ahead if Congress didn’t pass legislation allowing state laws to supersede federal laws that deal with marijuana.
The Bureau of Reclamation had been studying the issue with the Justice Department since last month, after Revell and other local officials in Washington state and Colorado asked for a legal analysis.
The Bureau of Reclamation is the nation’s largest wholesaler of water and a key federal agency in the West, best known for the dams, canals and power plants it’s built. Part of the Interior Department, it delivers water to more than 31 million people and to 1 out of every 5 Western farmers, contracting with local irrigation districts.
In Washington state, the agency provides irrigated water to roughly 1.2 million acres. Much of it comes from the Columbia and Yakima rivers, watering the state’s rich farmland.
Estimates vary, but officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife say a large pot plant can consume up to 6 gallons of water per day during prime growing season. Many legalization advocates say that’s inflated.
Schreiber said he grew more than 100 crops on his farm, relying on water provided by the Bureau of Reclamation. While he hasn’t received his marijuana-growing license yet, he said he was expecting to get one.
“If they tell me I can’t use bureau water, I will follow the rules because that’s what I do,” Schreiber said. “It is an inconvenience and just part of the cost of doing business.”