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Officials worry water will go to pot

Commercial marijuana growers may be illegally taking water from municipal water sources, such as fire hydrants and a filling station in White City, raising alarms with the Medford Water Commission.

"It's a huge problem," said Bob Strosser, a Water Commission board member.

The commission has begun a study to determine how much water is being used at filling stations in White City and Medford to see if increased marijuana production has had an impact and to determine if there are ways to police it.

"I think there are things that can and should be done," said Strosser, who will join the Jackson County Board of Commissioners in January.

The commission agreed on Dec. 8 to install water meters on fire hydrants at construction sites. Local contractors receive permits to use the fire hydrants, but the commission has received reports that other water trucks are also filling up, possibly for marijuana cultivation. Fire hydrants in other parts of the city may have been tapped as well.

"A lot of growers are buying land that is pretty arid," Strosser said. As a result, he said, they end up looking for other water sources.

He said small gardens with a few plants are not the problem, but he's more concerned with commercial grows that can have hundreds of plants.

"The focus isn't on the legitimate person who is trying to do things legally," he said.

Strosser said water use from filling stations by commercial marijuana growers is an issue that needs more study by the commission.

"At some point, we need to look at our polices and come up with clear and definitive guidelines as to when the treated water can be used," he said. "It's an emerging issue that we are going to have to address and deal with because water is a finite resource."

In the summer months, county residents whose wells run dry often go to White City to fill up large containers or water trucks.

Under state law, it's permissible to use municipal water for homes and for lawns and other landscaping around a house. However, the law isn't specific about using the water for agricultural purposes.

Strosser said he thinks the problem of using water for grow sites is likely more extensive than anyone imagines.

"I've heard they've been throwing pumps at night in Agate Lake," he said, referring to the small reservoir in a Jackson County park off of Highway 140.

Eric Johnson, interim manager of the Water Commission, said the filling stations in White City and Medford were designed to help people during the summer months deal with wells that go dry.

"It was something of a humanitarian service, you could say," he said. "It gives them an opportunity, or bridge, to get through those dry months."

But the Water Commission doesn't monitor the filling stations, Johnson said, so the agency doesn't know where the water goes. The filling stations, which are self-regulated, have been popular in drought years in the valley even before marijuana production took off.

Johnson said his staff will review water use data in the near future to determine whether there's been a spike in usage, though it might be difficult to pinpoint marijuana grows as the reason for the increases.

"It's hard to quantify because it is unknown," he said. "Is it zero? No, we know it's happening."

Leigh Johnson, Water Commission board chairman, said the water at the filling stations is high-quality drinking water, not irrigation water.

If someone were using it to water large marijuana operations, Johnson said, "It would be a terrible waste of finished municipal water."

Johnson said the commission board is currently trying to collect more information before taking any kind of action.

"At this point, we want to have a serious conversation among the commission and with law enforcement," he said.

The Water Commission is planning to upgrade its Duff treatment plant, which supplies the area with water from the Rogue River mostly in the summer months. But commissioners worried that the added capacity could be affected by marijuana growers tapping into the supply. 

"I'm not anxious to get Duff II done for marijuana," Johnson said at a recent Water Commission meeting.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Officials worry water will go to pot