Senate Appropriations Committee Approves Industrial Hemp Water Rights Act

The Colorado Cultivars hemp farm.
The Colorado Cultivars hemp farm. Lindsey Bartlett
On July 20, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Energy and Water Development appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018, authorizing $38.4 billion in spending. Wedged into this bill was the Industrial Hemp Water Rights Act, a piece of bipartisan legislation introduced in part by Colorado senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner.

The measure was designed to help clear up a legal quagmire regarding the use of federal water by farmers growing industrial hemp. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the use of federally controlled water for growing industrial hemp is prohibited. However, a measure in the 2014 Farm Bill actually allowed state agriculture departments to issue licenses permitting farmers to grow industrial hemp. These conflicting rules have generated confusion for farmers who rely on federal reserves of water but also grow industrial hemp in states where it is legal.

To resolve this, Bennet, Gardner and four other Western senators worked together on a proposal that would disentangle federal policy and allow farmers with water rights to use that water — even if it passes through federal facilities — to grow industrial hemp.

Bennet and other supporters applauded the committee's inclusion of the Industrial Hemp Water Rights Act in the language of the appropriations package, calling it a win for western states and agricultural growth. "This is a step in the right direction to ensure that Colorado farmers will have the water they need to grow industrial hemp and the opportunity to innovate and strengthen our agricultural economy," Bennet said in a statement.

Bennet also emphasized that conflicting policies have slowed the implementation of a farm bill intended to foster new business opportunities and growth in the agricultural economy; this new legislation will resolve those stifling effects, he said.

Gardner voiced his support of the bill from a more conservative standpoint. "This bipartisan legislation recognizes our farmers' right to access Colorado water and makes sure the federal government cannot interfere with their operations," he stated.

Other senators involved in the proposal were also quick to voice their approval. Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon lauded modern-day hemp research and farming for the opportunities it has created in his state, while Republican Steve Daines of Montana argued that federal bureaucrats shouldn't be able to restrict water access for products that are legal in their own states.

Since the budget proposal has now moved out of committee, the Senate will work with the House to approve the appropriations bill before October 1, the start of the fiscal year.
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Gabe Fine is a fifth-generation Colorado native and a student at Colorado College. He’s written about everything from the environment to housing justice to the postal service as an editorial intern for Westword.
Contact: Gabe Fine