Hemp water gives state lawmakers headaches

DENVER — It seemed simple enough to some. Hemp is an approved crop in the state of Colorado, so why would that impact a farmer’s water rights?

That situation happened to a Rocky Ford farmer who got his water from the Pueblo Reservoir, Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages that reservoir’s resources, denied water from it to a longtime farmer who switched some of his field to grow hemp.

“Fortunately for him, he had ample groundwater,” Coram said. “But it raises a concern.”

That’s why Coram and freshman Reps. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, and Donald Valdez, D-La Jara, introduced Senate Bill 117, which cleared the Colorado Senate last month on a 34-1 vote.

But when it came close to being heard in the House Agriculture, Livestock & Natural Resources Committee earlier this month, chairwoman Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, delayed it.

That was because new concerns had surfaced about the difference between what’s recognized as a legal crop between the state and the U.S. government. Hemp is still considered part of the cannabis family, and therefore, viewed as a schedule 1 drug, just like marijuana.

“There are a lot of water rights in the state of Colorado that are older than the Bureau of Reclamation,” Catlin said. “For the bureau to come in and say, ‘We’re not going to let you use that,’ it doesn’t work that way.”

Catlin, Coram and Valdez are trying to argue that because Colorado voters approved the cultivating, processing and sale of industrial hemp, it became an approved crop. Water rights can only be used for approved uses, such as legal agricultural operations.

That’s why the bill makes clear that industrial hemp is one of those crops, and that a person with an absolute or conditional water rights decree can use that water to grow industrial hemp.

“(Arndt) has had conversations with her congressional representatives, and I have had conversations with mine,” Coram said. “We think this bill is a good tool to move forward to get federal action on this.”

Coram and Catlin said that some people outside of the state are still living in the past when it comes to hemp, forgetting that the U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals and the federal Farm Act of 2014 have recognized hemp as something different from marijuana because, as defined in Colorado law, it contains less than 0.3 percent of delta-9 tetrahydrocannibinol, the psychotropic ingredient in marijuana.

“This bill brings it forward so that the state of Colorado can have the conversation with the feds about hemp,” Catlin said. “On the one hand, you’ve got this stuff listed as dope, and on the other you’ve got it approved in the Farm Bill as an approved crop. I think this will help separate them.”

The bill has been rescheduled for its first House hearing on Monday.


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