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How Does Cannabis Agriculture Fit Into the California Water Picture?

California has the largest degree of hydrological variability in the nation, but ever more constant demands. Over the course of about ten days per year, in events called ‘atmospheric rivers’, 85% of California’s rain falls. As the past six drought years demonstrate, atmospheric rivers (ARs) determine the state’s water outlook.

At a December water panel at University of California San Diego (UCSD), which did not cover cannabis, researchers discussed the state of water in California.

Jennifer Burney

“In a given year, we get about 80 million ‘acre feet’ or so in precipitation,” explained UCSD environmental scientist Jennifer Burney, referring to the quantity of water needed to cover an acre with a foot of water. “Half of that stays in our water system, and half or more we withdraw in some way, and about 25 or so million acre feet we use for irrigated agriculture.”

California’s agricultural industry uses 35 million acre feet of water a year. “California is the largest agricultural producing state in the country by a large margin,” says Dr. Burney, who focuses on global food security. “Total farm output is $50 billion dollars less lately due to the drought, 11% of the national total. Crops were 15% of national total. In addition to being a major producer, California is a unique producer [compared with] other main agricultural regions in the US.” Alongside cannabis, California grows more than 350 different crops.

Estimates posit California produces 60-70% of cannabis for the U.S. The California cannabis industry uses between 10,000 to 15,000 acre feet.

“If the midwest and the plains are the breadbasket of the country, we are the salad bowl and smoothie shop,” Dr. Burney quipped at the ‘Water in the West’ Science Policy Roundtable.

California’s dominant agricultural production region lies both north and south of the Sacramento River Delta. All across the state, crops like rice, grapes, strawberries, citrus, cotton, almond and pistachio, hay, beets and broccoli grow. California’s cannabis producing region is harder to chart, but the Emerald Triangle, located in the state’s north-to-northwest, is dubbed the largest cannabis producing region in the U.S.


“[California produces] essentially all of the countries’ almonds, walnuts and pistachios, prunes, artichoke, dates, figs, and a majority of avocados. It’s about 60% of US fruit and veggie production, and 20% of the country’s milk,” says Dr. Burney. “It’s a very different landscape in terms of production compared to rest of country, and we have a lot of microclimates, so we do produce niche crops.” Cannabis would represent one such niche crop.


“If you look back in time to 2010 you can see a very different landscape, and of course the urban extent is smaller, but you see much larger and smaller areas devoted to alfalfa and cotton. And this has been a really important trend across California the past five years.” While 2010 and 2011 was a good rain year, California has suffered drought ever since.

Researchers are currently studying how humans can better harness nature’s natural water processes by storing water stocks in dams, but the system is still being developed.

“We increasingly produce important high value crops that require regular water supply,” notes Dr. Burney. “And [regular water supply] is not something we specialize in.”

While cannabis might represent one of these high value crops, it’s law abiding growers won’t represent a big drain on California’s water supply.

Images courtesy of University of California San Diego, CA NORML and Shutterstock

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