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A series of reports focused on Oklahoma's infrastructure, produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations.

The boom of cannabis growers in Oklahoma is straining rural utilities

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Oklahoma’s NPR member stations are producing a series of stories focused on infrastructure in the state as Congress wrestles with the issue. Today, as more states approve medical or recreational marijuana, they have to figure out how to regulate production.

In Oklahoma, nearly 10% of the population has a medical marijuana card. That’s causing a boom in growers across the state. As Seth Bodine reports, the demand for water and electricity is straining some rural utilities.

Inside a large metal building outside Stillwater, Adam Miller fills up a big tank of water.

Miller is the head grower of the marijuana business Iris Farms, where he’s responsible for caring for about 5,000 growing cannabis plants. That takes lights, fans, and water. He says his electric bill can be up to $3,000 a month. But his water bill? It’s pretty low -- only about $40 a month. Miller says that’s different from growing outdoors.

“I'm watering individual plants, you know, half gallon of water at a time and they're irrigating a field and the space between the rows and everything else is absorbing all that water. So they just have to use a whole lot of it,” Miller said.

Over the past nine months, eight cannabis growers have moved to Hughes County. Sheldon Tatum is a rural water district manager. As Sheldon Tatum drives his truck on a dirt road, he stops and points out what may be a new outdoor farm.

“I had one last month that was 223,000 gallons,” Tatum said.

Tatum worries the recent increase in water use will cause breaks in the old piping, which would add to utility bills.

“We've got water systems that were built 50-60 years ago being asked to perform to standards today that are just outside of its capacity,” Sheldon said.

Since Oklahomans approved medical marijuana in 2018, the number of licensed cannabis growers has exploded to more than 8,000 to meet the state’s demand. For Tom Whitaker, a water district manager in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, meeting the growers’ demand for water comes down to resources.

“Based on the numbers that I'm seeing, I will run out of water,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker said he’s sold 40 million gallons of water so far this year. He expects that’ll double, which is dangerously close to the amount of water the state’s resources board has given them, which is why he’s cutting people off at 10,000 gallons a month.

“If I start over pumping, I start robbing from my neighbor over here, and then he don't have any water. And then pretty soon nobody has water and that's that's our challenge,” Whitaker said.

Cannabis does take water to grow. But Chris Dillis, a researcher at UC Berkeley, said the plant isn’t thirstier than other irrigated crops.

“When cannabis is grown in areas that are more home to traditional agriculture, it's really not all that different from other crops in terms of water requirements,” Dillis said.

But it’s not just water.

“These growers are using as much power as a small city,” Said Logan Pleasant, the director of operations at Lake Region Electric Cooperative. He says there’s more than a hundred growers that use their electric system.

If this keeps up, Pleasant said the co-op will have to buy new substations and even install new power lines. That would cost thousands of dollars, and the price tag would be shared by each member of the coop. But if the marijuana boom turns into a bust, that could be a problem.

“Many of these locations will either close up shop, or they will scale back significantly if the market wanes,” Pleasant said.

And that’s a very real possibility. John Hudak is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies marijuana policy.

“There are far too many growers,” Hudak said. “There are far too many dispensaries in that state, for the number of patients that there are.”

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority doesn’t regulate how much water and electricity growers use. But a spokesperson said it plans to work closely with municipalities and agencies like Oklahoma’s water and energy boards on finding solutions.

In the meantime, local utility managers will have to make hard decisions about what they do with limited resources, and growing demand.

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