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Water Policy in California: Six Key Takeaways from the State Water Board’s New Cannabis Cultivation Policy

By Amy Steinfeld
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Cannabis is the most highly regulated crop in California, and the state just added another layer of regulation. This article breaks down the State Water Resources Control Board’s (SWRCB) recently updated Cannabis Cultivation Policy – Principles and Guidelines for Cannabis Cultivation (“Policy”) into six key takeaways.1 These guidelines impose new rules on cannabis cultivation activities that have the potential to impact a watercourse (stream, creek, river or lake). Most of these rules apply to cultivation of sun-grown cannabis, which is currently allowed in some form in 12 counties. Compliance with these new requirements will be implemented through the CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing Program.

  1. When developing farmland, hillsides should be avoided and erosion must be controlled.

The Policy provides specific rules for growing pot on undisturbed land. To prevent erosion, numerous limitations are placed on earthmoving and activities in sensitive areas, and cultivators are not allowed to grade hillsides that exceed a 50% slope.2

Cultivation prepping activities must minimize grading, dust, soil disturbance, erosion, and impacts on habitat, especially during the winter season.3 No vehicles or heavy equipment may be used within a riparian setback4 or watercourse,5 and cultivators must avoid damaging native riparian vegetation6 and oak woodlands.7 All farm equipment, fuel, and hazardous materials must be carefully stored away from creeks and sensitive habitat.8 The Policy also governs road construction.9

  1. Cultivators should avoid work in or near a surface waterbody.10

If a cultivator’s activities impact a river, stream, or lake, they must consult with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).11 Cultivators must maintain minimum riparian setbacks for all cannabis activities, including grading and ancillary farm facilities. Before grading land, a biologist must identify any sensitive flora or fauna, and if any is located, consult with CDFW and provide a report to the Regional Board.12 No irrigation runoff, tailwater, chemicals or plant waste can be discharged to a waterbody.13 Diversion facilities for the irrigation of cannabis may not block fish passage, upstream or downstream, and must be fitted with a CDFW-approved fish screen; new facilities are subject to all applicable permits and approvals.

  1. During the dry season, cultivators may not use surface water.

The use of surface water supplies in California requires a valid water right and the use of water for cannabis cultivation is no different.14 Anyone seeking to appropriate “water flowing in a known and defined channel” or from a watercourse must apply to the SWRCB and obtain a permit or license.15 Alternatively, a landowner whose property is adjacent to a watercourse may have a riparian right to divert the water for use on her land. Riparian users do not need permission from the SWRCB to divert water, but they must report water use annually.16

The biggest obstacle that growers face under this Policy is that they cannot divert anysurface water during the dry season—the growing season (April 1 through Oct. 31). It should be noted:

  • The seasonal prohibition of surface water diversion applies regardless of the nature of the water right or what has been historically used to irrigate other crops.
  • During the dry period, cultivators may only irrigate using stored water (see no. 5 below) or groundwater.
  • It remains to be seen whether a legal challenge will be brought against the state for their draconian prohibitions on irrigating cannabis during the six-month growing season. Because this prohibition applies to all watersheds in California, singles out one low-water use crop, and ignores established water rights, it is overly broad and may constitute a constitutional “taking” of property rights.
  1. During the wet season, surface water diversions must be monitored closely.

Cannabis-specific restrictions also apply during the wet season. From Nov. 1 to March 31, cultivators must comply with instream flow requirements and check in with the state daily. All surface water diversions for cannabis are subject to “Numeric and Narrative Instream Flow Requirements,” to protect flows needed for fish migration and spawning. To ensure diversions do not adversely impact fish flows, cultivators must also “maintain a minimum bypass of at least 50% of the streamflow.”17,18

While valid appropriative right holders may divert more than 10 gal./min. for cannabis irrigation during the wet season, riparian right holders are not allowed to exceed that diversion rate.19 All cultivators (including small diverters <10 acre-feet (“AF”)/yr) are required to employ water-saving irrigation methods, install measuring devices to track diversions daily, and maintain records on-site for at least five years.20 Cultivators must inspect and repair their water delivery system for leaks monthly,21 and inspect sprinklers and mainlines weekly to prevent runoff.22

  1. Cannabis cultivators may obtain a new water storage right for use during the dry season.

To address dry season irrigation limitations, cultivators are urged to store water offstream during the wet season, including rainwater, for dry season use. Growers may not rely on onstreamstorage reservoirs, except if they have an existing permitted reservoir in place prior to Oct. 31, 2017.23 Alternatively, small growers (storage is capped at 6.6 AF/yr) may benefit from the new Cannabis SIUR Program, an expedited process for cultivators who divert from a surface water source to develop and install storage offstream. Only diverters with a valid water right that allows for diversion to storage between Nov. 1 and March 31 qualify.

  1. Groundwater is less regulated, but cultivators should avoid drilling or using wells near waterbodies.

Groundwater is generally the recommended water supply for cannabis because, unlike surface water, it may be used during the dry season and is not subject to many of the restrictions listed above. It should be noted however:

  • Many groundwater basins are now governed by California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (“SGMA”), which requires water agencies to halt overdraft and restore balanced levels of groundwater pumping from certain basins. Thus, SGMA may result in future pumping cutbacks or pumping assessments.
  • In some counties, moratoriums and restrictions on drilling new wells are on the rise.
  • Under this Policy, the state may step in to restrict groundwater pumping in the dry season in watersheds where there are large numbers of cannabis groundwater, wells located close to streams, and areas of high surface water-groundwater connectivity.24

In short, groundwater pumpers are at risk of cutback if the state deems it necessary to maintain nearby creek flows.Noncompliance can bring lofty fines, revocation of a grower’s cultivation license, or prosecution

Final Takeaways

This cannabis policy presents one of California’s most complex regulatory schemes to date. Before investing in a property, one must understand this Policy and have a robust understanding of the water rights and hydrology associated with the cultivation site. Growers looking to reduce permitting time and costs should invest in relatively flat, historically cultivated land with existing wells and ample groundwater supplies, or alternatively, grow indoors.

This article attempts to synthesize the maze of water supply and water quality regulations that make compliance exceedingly difficult; more detailed information can be found here. Noncompliance can bring lofty fines, revocation of a grower’s cultivation license, or prosecution. Growers are encouraged to contact a hydrologist and water lawyer before making major investments and to designate a water compliance officer to monitor and track all water diversions and water used for irrigation. Growers should also consult with their local jurisdiction regarding water use restrictions and stream setbacks before moving any dirt or planting cannabis.


References

  1. The Policy is available at: https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/cannabis/cannabis_policy.html (will go into effect on or before April 16, 2019.)
  2. Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 4. The Policy defines “Qualified Professional” as a: California-Licensed Professional Geologist, including Certified Hydrogeologist and Certified Engineering Geologist, California-Licensed Geotechnical Engineer, and Professional Hydrologist. (Policy, Definition 72, p. 11.)
  3. Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Terms 4 and 10.
  4. Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 3.
  5. Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 40.
  6. Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 33.
  7. Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 34.
  8. Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 7.
  9. Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Terms 15 to 29.
  10. Policy, Appendix A, Section 1, Term No. 41.
  11. Policy, Appendix A, Section 1, Term No. 3; see also 1602.
  12. Policy, Appendix A, Section 1, Term No. 10.
  13. Policy, Appendix A, Section 1, Term No. 326.
  14. Policy, Appendix A, Section 2, Term 69.
  15. Wat. Code §1225; See alsoWat. Code §1201 [providing that the state shall have jurisdiction over, “[a]ll water flowing in any natural channel” except water that is appropriated or being used for beneficial purpose upon land riparian to the channel.”]
  16. Wat. Code §§ 5100–02.
  17. Policy, p. 12.
  18. Policy, Attachment A, pp. 60, 63.
  19. Policy, Section 2, Term 78.
  20. Policy, Section 2, Term 82.
  21. Policy, Section 2, Term 95.
  22. Policy, Section 2, Term 99.
  23. Policy, Section 2, Term 79.
  24. Policy, p. 11.

5 Compliance Reporting and Notification Requirements That You May Not Know About

By Anne Conn
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New cannabis businesses must demonstrate proof of compliance to myriad laws and regulations as part of the initial license application process. And once a license is issued, it is easy to prioritize day-to-day business operations over ongoing compliance reporting requirements especially when sales are booming and compliance requirements are multi-layered, vague or obscured in non-cannabis specific programs and regulations.

But seemingly benign neglect of some minor reporting requirements can have major consequences to new and established businesses alike.

This article explores five compliance reporting requirements that cannabis businesses may not know about, and suggests ways to maintain a strong compliance posture across all regulatory agencies.

Pesticide Reporting

All licensed growers are required to prove compliance to state pesticide usage regulations. However, expectations on how and when to provide that proof of compliance vary greatly from state to state.  Furthermore, the responsibility of education and enforcement for pesticide usage in the cannabis industry often falls to non-cannabis specific agencies such as state departments of agriculture or environmental compliance.

For example in California, cultivators must report detailed monthly pesticide use reports via the State’s Agriculture Weights/Measures Division reporting portal, while Washington State regulators simply expect cultivators to keep records locally on site and provide them when requested.

With so many places to look, the best place to start your pesticide reporting requirement search is with your local agriculture department. They should be able to answer your questions and provide you with a list of resources to help you better understand how to comply with state pesticide usage and reporting regulations.

Hazardous Materials Reporting

Like pesticide use and reporting, hazardous waste handling and reporting requirements are complex and vary state to state. In fact, there may even be nuanced variations in handling requirements at the county level. The best approach to ensure compliance with a complicated set of regulations is to start by consulting your local county fire department. They will have the most specific set of rules for hazardous materials handling and reporting and can help you develop a site-specific compliance plan.

Two OSHA reporting requirements

Depending on how your cannabis business is classified, you may be required to keep injury and illness incident records and provide reports to the Occupational Health and Safety Organization (OSHA) for specific time periods.

Contact your business insurance provider’s loss prevention representative for more information about how your business is classified, which specific OSHA reporting requirements apply to you, and how to stay in compliance with applicable OSHA requirements.

Click here to learn more about how OSHA organizes reporting requirements by business type.

A note of caution here: OSHA non-compliance penalties can be steep and “I didn’t know I was supposed to do that” is not an acceptable defense when it comes to explaining any OSHA violations.

Labor Law Notification Requirements

Federal labor law requires that you notify employees of their rights. At a minimum, you post information regarding wages and hours, child labor, unemployment benefits, safety and health/workers’ compensation and discrimination in a conspicuous place where they are easily visible to all employees. Some states requires additional information be posted in a similar manner, so it’s important to be sure that those notices are posted along with the federal requirements.

This is a simple, yet easily overlooked, requirement for all businesses, regardless of industry. Ask your insurance provider for a copy of the notice to print and post right away (if you have not already) for a quick compliance win!

These five reporting and notification requirements may seem tedious, overly complicated and burdensome in the face of day-to-day business operations, but compliance to these requirements not only protects your business and employees, it also enhances the overall reputation of the industry. The good news is that regulatory agencies welcome a proactive approach and are happy to work with cannabis businesses to provide guidance and information for developing compliance plans.

Seven Steps To Avoid the Green Rush Blues: Investigate Water Supplies Before Planting Cannabis

By Amy M. Steinfeld
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A clean, reliable water supply lies at the heart of every successful cannabis farm. It’s no surprise that the stakes for finding land with ideal growing conditions, including adequate water, are high. But new buyers (and lessees) caught up in the green rush often gloss over water rights or are unaware of California’s byzantine rules governing the irrigation of cannabis.

Water rights are complex. Water regulations applicable to cannabis cultivation are even more complex. And our new climate reality convolutes things further. Longer droughts, more volatile weather, political uncertainties, increased groundwater regulation and water quality concerns are exacerbating tensions over local and statewide water supplies. In many areas of California, landowners can no longer rely on local water districts to meet their needs.

A robust investigation of the property must consider water supplies. Because a property’s water supply is dependent on water rights, local ordinances, state regulations, politics and hydrology, it’s important to consult a water lawyer (and in some instances a hydrologist) before closing. A bit of foresight can prevent a grower from being left high and dry.

The following checklist provides a roadmap to conduct water rights’ due diligence. While many of these details are California-specific, this type of due diligence applies throughout the West.

Step 1: Identify Available Water Supplies and Consider Potential Limitations On Irrigation, Including Potential Future Changes

Conduct a site visit to identify existing water infrastructure, natural water features and existing or potential water service options. Next, determine if the property is served by a public water supplier. If that’s the case, the California State Water Resources Control Board (“State Water Board”) does not require any specific documentation to irrigate cannabis, but the water supply must be disclosed in the CalCannabis license application.

Groundwater is generally the best supply for cannabis, but the era of unregulated groundwater pumping is over. Many groundwater basins in California are now governed by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (“SGMA”), which requires water agencies to halt overdraft and restore balanced levels of groundwater pumping from certain basins. As a result, SGMA may result in future pumping cutbacks or pumping assessments. It’s imperative to identify the local groundwater basin via the Department of Water Resources’ Bulletin 118, and determine whether the groundwater basin is adjudicated or governed by a groundwater sustainability agency. Growers should also test the local water supply’s pH and salt levels because cannabis plants are finicky and water treatment can be cost prohibitive. If a new well is needed, growers should consult with their local county before drilling a new well. In some areas, moratoriums and restrictions on drilling new wells are on the rise.

As a rule of thumb, cannabis cultivators should avoid using surface water to irrigate cannabis. Surface diversions are subject to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s permitting authority. And under the interim State Water Board Cannabis Policy, commercial cannabis cultivators cannot divert anysurface water during the dry season (April 1 through Oct. 31), even if they have a riparian right that can be used to irrigate other crops. During the dry season, cultivators may only irrigate using water that has been stored off-stream. And even during the wet season, cannabis cultivators must comply with instream flow requirements and check in with the state daily to ensure adequate water supplies are available. Cannabis cultivators are also required to install measuring devices and track surface water diversions daily. And buyer beware, a groundwater well that extracts water from a subterranean stream may be considered a surface-water diversion. So be especially cautious if the well is located close to a creek or river.Develop a water use plan to optimize water efficiency 

Step 2: Identify Water Supplies Used On the Property, Including the Basis of Right, and Quantify Historical Use

Review information on historic and existing water use. This may include past water bills and assessments. If there is a well on the property, the seller or lessor may have metering data, electrical records and crop data that can establish historic groundwater use. Cultivators must submit a well log to CalCannabis as part of the cannabis cultivation application. If surface water is available, the purchaser should review the State Water Board eWRIMs database for water rights permits, licenses, stock pond registrations and certificates, decisions and orders. The purchaser should also identify surface water diversion structures and review annual filings to determine compliance with all terms and conditions of the water right. Lastly, the purchaser should request all documents and contracts pertaining to water rights.

Realistically estimate water demand for irrigation and other on-site purposes.Step 3: Confirm Ownership of Right and Assess Any Limitations On Water Right

Determine whether the right has been abandoned, lost to prescription or forfeited. Evaluate the seniority of the water right, availability of the right, adequacy of place of use, purpose of use (must include irrigation), season of use, and quantity of any permitted or licensed post-1914 right. Determine whether historical diversions pursuant to an appropriative right support the full amount of the claimed right, and whether any changes to the water right are needed to support the proposed new use. Cultivators in California who plan to utilize surface water also need to file for a “Cannabis Small Irrigation Use Registration” to store water during the wet season for use during the dry season.

Step 4: Reconcile Water Demand With Available Supply

Realistically estimate water demand for irrigation and other on-site purposes. Develop a water use plan to optimize water efficiency (drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting, water monitoring, hoop structures) regardless of supply sufficiency. Many counties, such as Santa Barbara County, require that cannabis growers meet certain irrigation efficiency standards. Determine whether available supplies can meet all proposed demands, including plans for full buildout. If not, consider whether additional supplies are available for use on the property.

Step 5: Determine Water Supply Compliance Obligations

 The rights associated with water supplies are defined by their source, the time frame during which supplies can be taken, the quantity of water to which the right attaches, and any limitations on the purpose of use of the water supply. There may also be reporting requirements associated with taking and using the supply—these can include requirements to report the quantity of water used as well as information regarding the end use of the water. Failure to timely report can have serious consequences. Cannabis cultivators are also subject to additional water quality regulations and restrictions, including waste discharge requirements pursuant to the State Water Board’s Cannabis General Order.

Step 6: Negotiate Deal and Draft Conveyance Documents

After obtaining an understanding of the water supply associated with the property, the property conveyance documents may be drafted to incorporate the transfer of rights associated with the property’s water supplies. These may include the assignment of contracts pursuant to which water supplies are obtained, the transfer of permits or licenses as to the water supplies, or the transfer of water rights arising out of a judgment or decree.

Step 7: Consider Unused Water Supply Assets That Could Be Monetized 

To the extent the water supply rights associated with the property exceed the cannabis plants’ water demand, it may be possible to monetize unused or excess water supply assets through transfer of the rights to a third party.

If you have any questions about water rights related to cannabis cultivation it’s always in your best interest to contact an experienced water attorney early on in the process.