In Short

Thieves stealing water for grow operations could face tougher Oregon penalties

By: - January 24, 2022 5:45 am

A dry tap. A new bill would up enforcement, penalties, on illegal cannabis growers caught stealing water for irrigation. (Ivan Radic/Flickr)

A bill from the House Committee On Agriculture, Land Use, and Water will tackle increasing instances of water theft for illegal cannabis operations in the state.

State Rep. Ken Helm, D-Washington County, introduced the bill that would empower the director of the state Water Resources Department to seek court-issued search warrants to investigate water theft. 

The proposal addresses an increase in instances where people are stealing water from creeks, rivers and underground aquifers to irrigate illegal cannabis operations. The water is owned by those with established water rights or protected by state and federal laws. 

“We’re in agreement that this is a hair-on-fire kind of problem,” Helm said in a recent interview. 

His legislation would require people or businesses that own or operate a nursery or agricultural business that hauls water in by truck to document such loads and provide the records when requested by the Water Resources Department. It prohibits soliciting or accepting hauled water from an illegal source, and establishes penalties for any false statements or representation of having accepted or used illegally sourced water. These are new civil violations that could lead to fines of up to $20,000 a day or an amount based on the value of the illegal crop.

Helm said that empowering the Water Resources Department to investigate water theft would take some of the burden off of the state Agriculture Department, which is responsible for ensuring licenses for agricultural hemp are not being used to grow marijuana. 

Helm said that prior to 2021, the department had just two enforcement officers dedicated to these cases.

Helm said legislators had heard concerns from some nurseries and farmers that the new requirement to track water hauls could be unnecessarily burdensome and costly. The committee will hold at least four meetings with stakeholders around the state to get feedback.

“We need to make sure those operations can occur unhindered across our state while giving the water department the tools they need to track down illegal operations that harm everybody,” Helm said.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.