Bill aims to clarify law about water for hemp

Sen. Cory Gardner

Sen. Michael Bennet

In a case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing, the 2014 Farm Bill authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to license farmers to grow industrial hemp.

At the same time, however, the federal Bureau of Reclamation prohibits water in lakes and other storage facilities that it controls to be used on cannabis crops.

As a way of ending that incongruity, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators from three Western states introduced a bill Tuesday that would change all that.

The senators — Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Steve Daines, R-Mont., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. — say that dichotomy has gone on long enough.

“At the very least, Colorado’s farmers deserve a clear path to boost growth in our agriculture economy,” Bennet said.

“Colorado’s industrial hemp farmers should not be restricted by over-burdensome federal regulations that don’t respect Colorado’s water laws,” Gardner added. “This bipartisan legislation recognizes our farmers’ right to access Colorado water, and makes sure the federal government cannot interfere with their operations.”

The senators’ measure, dubbed the Industrial Hemp Water Rights Act, would clarify federal policies that farmers can use their water rights to cultivate hemp even if the water passed through federal facilities.

The proposed measure takes aim at the same issue addressed by the Colorado Legislature during this year’s session.

There, state legislators passed a new law that stemmed from a situation involving a Pueblo County farmer who has long-standing water rights in the county. The farmer switched a portion of his fields to grow hemp, but was barred by the bureau from accessing his water rights out of Lake Pueblo, which the bureau manages, said Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose.

None of that sat well with Coram and fellow Montrose Republican Rep. Marc Catlin.

They, along with state Rep. Donald Valdez, D-La Jara, introduced a bill confirming that a person with an absolute water right decreed for agricultural use could use that water to cultivate industrial hemp, a crop that has a multitude of uses and is seen as a major economic driver once the hemp industry takes hold, particularly for rural parts of the state.

That can’t happen, Catlin and Coram say, if farmers can’t access sufficient water to grow their crops. They say part of the problem is a continued false belief that hemp is the same as marijuana.

Unlike marijuana, hemp has less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. In short, it doesn’t get people high.

Coram said the new proposal is just what he had been pushing to see, but is concerned it will get bogged down in Congress.

“This is exactly what I was hoping the (Colorado) bill would force,” Coram said. “Will it pass? The odds are, no. It’s Congress. But it needs to happen.”


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