Where some see desert, Cid and Medina Isbell see opportunity.

Standing on a plot on their 30-acre property just north of Madrid, they envision a greenhouse full of cannabis plants where brush, sunflowers and cactuses now grow.

They are among many hopeful entrepreneurs who see New Mexico’s upcoming legal market for cannabis production and sales — set to launch by April 1 — as a way to break into a new business with a potential windfall. The Isbells already have raised $200,000 toward their initial budget of $800,000, and they’ve hired a lawyer to help sort out legal issues.

They own the land, and they’re ready to install the security fences and cameras required to get a cannabis production license from the state. But they have one big challenge remaining.

Water.

Like all prospective cannabis producers in New Mexico, the Isbells must prove they have rights to water and an adequate supply before they can apply for a license.

That can be a problem, especially for rural growers, in a state with complicated laws divvying up a limited supply of water rights and in the throes of a 20-year megadrought that threatens to contribute to a serious water shortage. While cannabis growers who plan to operate in facilities within a city can tap into the municipal water supply as commercial customers, those growing outside city limits must purchase or lease commercial or agricultural water rights from someone else who owns them — a difficult and time-consuming process.

A domestic well on private property does not satisfy the requirement.

As the Isbells began preparing to open a company that produces, manufactures and sells cannabis, they thought they had their water needs covered by a domestic well. They were surprised to discover it wasn’t sufficient.

“It’s definitely discouraging,” said Medina Isbell, 47, a professional photographer who has worked in the retail and restaurant industries.

“Water becomes a huge factor in our profitability,” her husband said.

The couple plans to build a 10,000-gallon water tank for their first greenhouse. They estimate they will need 30,000 gallons a year as they expand.

If they can’t pump water in from a local source, they’ll haul it in, they said. They’ve been talking to local water transport companies. One has offered a 6-cents-a-gallon deal, delivery included. That will increase their monthly water budget, initially set at $200 a month, to $1,000 a month.

Cid Isbell, a career information technology worker in his mid-50s, is eager to jump into a new industry, hire up to 20 workers and build a nest egg for his eventual retirement.

“It’s going to be difficult, especially with all the rules we need to follow to get licensed,” he said. “But we’re determined.”

John Romero, director of the Water Resource Allocation Program of the State Engineer’s Office, said people often don’t understand how complex water rights can be in New Mexico. His agency is drafting a fact sheet to help people who plan to apply for cannabis producer licenses navigate the system.

In the meantime, his staff is fielding calls — 25 to 50 per day — about water requirements for cannabis.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Romero said.

He cautions it will take time for any cannabis producer to secure water rights. First, the state has to finalize rules for producers by a Sept. 1 deadline. Then producers must submit their paperwork to the State Engineer’s Office for approval.

The office so far has a backlog of 500 water permit applications, including requests for water rights transfers, he said, adding it is likely to take eight to 10 months for each one to get approval. And the number is likely to surge as applications from cannabis producers start to come in.

The development of a new industry that will further tax the state’s limited water supply is what most concerns Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. She cited a recent study by the Cannabis Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley that predicted nationwide water use by legal cannabis markets will increase by 86 percent by 2025.

Garcia said there just isn’t enough water in New Mexico for the new industry.

“There are already tensions in communities over the distribution of water,” she said. “Water use due to cannabis adds a new demand to an already limited supply.”

Studies of states where cannabis producers have been legally operating for some time don’t paint a clear picture of how much water the industry could demand in New Mexico. Much depends on the size of the plants, whether growers are cultivating cannabis indoors or outdoors, and the watering process they use — drip irrigation system versus a garden hose.

A recent report in the journal BioScience says a single cannabis plant requires about 22 liters of water per day — not quite 6 gallons. Cannabis plants require less water than alfalfa, corn, potatoes and some fruit trees, the report says, but more water than grapes and melons.

Tony Martinez, CEO of Lava Leaf Organics in Aztec, which provides medical cannabis to Urban Wellness dispensaries, said his business uses 90 gallons of water per plant for a growing season.

For his 400 plants, that’s a total of about 36,000 gallons, which comes from a local water users association.

Lava Leaf plans to expand into recreational cannabis, which will allow it to increase its footprint to 8,000 plants. Even then, Martinez said, it would be using less than 12 percent of its allotted water.

An October 2020 report by the National Cannabis Industry Association on environmental impacts says many water-use studies focus on the effects of outdoor illicit markets, particularly in California.

“Considering that a large amount of cannabis farming nationwide is indoors and far from watercourses vulnerable to flow reductions, the initial alarms of cannabis as a threat to water availability are not broadly applicable beyond the original context of illicit cannabis farming in Northern California,” the report says.

Still, the report says indoor growing can put a heightened demand on municipal water systems.

Linda Trujillo, superintendent of the state Regulation and Licensing Department, which oversees the cannabis industry, said she hopes climate conditions do not create a barrier for prospective growers.

The state will gauge water use among cannabis businesses for the first two years of the legal industry’s operation.

Toner Mitchell, New Mexico water and habitat program manager for Trout Unlimited, said he remains concerned, nevertheless. He spoke briefly about the potential adverse effects of the cannabis industry on wildlife during a recent cannabis conference in Albuquerque.

If the state determines too much water is being used to grow cannabis, Mitchell said, “I think it’s going to be very hard to scale back production.”

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

(17) comments

Derek Gzaskow

water bills, electric bills (fans and lights) I wonder what the break even point is? 50 plants? 100 plants? o ya and where can I legally buy 12 seeds?

Heather Atencio

Agree with all comments. Water drlivery- where's that water coming from? CO2 is similar to methane from dairies, stock yards.

Unless near a tribuary/ river, it could be futile. Start with a low cannabis count before expanding. Rain harvesting into cisterns. Water tables have lowered when cannabis growing operations have been instituted.

Heather Atencio

Agree with all comments. CO2 levels are similar to methane from cows. Water delivery like AquaMan/ Thompson is not the answer. Maybe they should consider microgrows. Have a friend outside of Mountainair whereby a cannabis operation lowered her water table considerably. Unless along a trbutary/ river, it's counterproductive to wanna be cannabis producers.

Khal Spencer

Its funny that after all the hoopla to make cannabis a cash crop in NM, now we worry about the water? Is that a case of putting the cart before the horse?

Agriculture uses up the lion's share of water in New Mexico with residential use a very small amount. Maybe ten percent. So its up to the various agribusinesses to figure out how to share their rather huge piece of the pie. Maybe if dope brings in far more dollars per gallon, it can make a case for itself.

But as far as NM? If the big industries are dope, gambling, and sucking on Uncle Sam's teat, since the so-called progressives want to eliminate oil and gas, we are in deep trouble.

Richard Reinders

Pot is not going to take away more water they will just replace another crop like alfalfa and use that water, actually if they mandated that they have to replace alfalfa they would save water, from what I read pot uses less than alfalfa.

Khal Spencer

Exactly.

Matthew Rawlings

Best source for permitting is WaterBank.

Tom Aageson Aageson

This water issue was raised well before the bill was passed. Oh no, ignore the issues for more money. A cheaper way to increase revenue than seriously reinvent our economy. Oil, gas, casinos and weed...the ingredients of a third world state.

Richard Reinders

[thumbup]

Khal Spencer

[thumbup]

Carolyn DM

NM does not have the water to keep building these monstrous housing developments, yet the building goes on, especially in the Santa Fe area!!

Daniel Werwath

Couple points to consider here. First, apartments use around 1/3 less water than detached housing. And overall, domestic water accounts for a very small fraction of water use in NM. Technically speaking more surface water evaporates than is used for domestic purposes. We also use pour about 1/3 of that domestic water in Santa Fe into the ground for landscaping.

The single greatest users of water in our state are agriculture (farming and ranching) which accounts for over 70% of NM's water consumption. Hope this adds some perspective!

Matthew Rawlings

Good points.

Ernest Green

Enormously informative. Thank you for taking the time to write this out.

Khal Spencer

Daniel's numbers can be compared to New Mexico Water Basics: An Introduction to Water Markets, Business Market Task Force, 2010. For some reason this blankety-blank web server will not let me include the link.

Bob Burk

Also consider CO2 as well as water:https://www.wired.com/story/cannabis-enormous-carbon-emissions/

Derek Gzaskow

ya more co2 don't help but I think cows are like triple the amount of co2 production than all the semi trucks driving around

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