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No prohibition seen in tapping Lake Mead water to grow medical pot

Budding local weed farmers can breathe easily. A new federal policy directive that could bar the delivery of Colorado River water to marijuana cultivators apparently does not apply to those in the Las Vegas Valley.

Though roughly 90 percent of the valley’s water comes from the river by way of federally managed Lake Mead, officials from the Southern Nevada Water Authority believe their agency is exempt from a temporary policy statement unveiled this week by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Authority spokesman Bronson Mack said agency lawyers have reviewed the policy and decided it does not apply to municipal water suppliers.

Dan DuBray, public affairs chief for the bureau in Washington, D.C., offered a similar take, noting the policy statement was issued in response to a direct question about irrigation districts that draw on federally controlled water and could serve state-approved pot farms in Colorado and Washington state.

“It’s about irrigation water. It’s about open irrigation water,” DuBray said.

The policy states that in accordance with the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the bureau “will not approve use of Reclamation facilities or water in the cultivation of marijuana.”

It goes on to require bureau employees to report to their superiors if “Reclamation facilities or the water they supply” are being used to grow marijuana.

The policy statement, which expires in May 2015, does not draw a distinction between — or even specifically mention — irrigation districts and municipal water suppliers, but both DuBray and Mack said the water authority falls under a specific exemption for agencies that take water from a federal source and mix it with other water “in nonfederal facilities” before delivery to customers.

Though Hoover Dam is a federal facility, the authority and its member utilities own the intake pipes and treatment plants that draw water from Lake Mead and clean it up for delivery to local taps.

That wasn’t always the case. The federal government built the first intake pipe and treatment plant that began delivering drinking water to Las Vegas in the early 1970s, about the same time the Controlled Substances Act took effect. The water authority bought those facilities from the Bureau of Reclamation in 2001.

If that hadn’t happened — if the bureau still owned the pipes and pumps that may soon feed Colorado River water to the valley’s legal indoor marijuana farms — the new policy could be a problem, Mack said.

But even if the policy did apply to the water authority, it’s unclear just how aggressive the bureau would be in enforcing it.

As DuBray put it, echoing language in the policy statement itself: “Reclamation is not an enforcement agency. It’s not an investigative agency. It’s a water wholesaler.”

But it’s still an issue the water authority is tracking, which has led to some unusual conversations — and a fair number of pot jokes — at what is normally a pretty buttoned-down organization, Mack said.

“It’s just weird to hear this terminology in the workplace,” he said.

Meanwhile, Clark County officials are reviewing applications for prospective medical marijuana growers. State regulators also will weigh in on who gets the green light to grow what some call Nevada’s next big cash crop.

“This might be one of the first major agricultural industries in Southern Nevada,” Mack said. “Certainly the first in our service area.”

It remains to be seen how much of Southern Nevada’s scarce water supply might be used to grow marijuana or whether the state’s expanded push into medical pot will lead to legalization for recreational use.

But for now, at least, it seems federal water regulators won’t stand in the way if Nevada decides it wants to experiment.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Find him on Twitter @RefriedBrean.

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