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The boom of cannabis growers in Oklahoma is straining rural utilities

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Oklahoma, nearly 10% of residents have a medical marijuana card, and that has sparked a boom in cannabis growers across the state. As Seth Bodin of Harvest Public Media reports, the demand for water and electricity to support that infrastructure is straining some rural utilities.

SETH BODINE, BYLINE: Since Oklahomans approved medical marijuana in 2018 with some of the loosest regulations in the country, the number of licensed cannabis growers has exploded to more than 8,000 - like Adam Miller, the head grower of Iris Farms outside Stillwater. Inside a large metal building with high intensity lighting and about a dozen fans, he's filling a big tank of water for the day's tasks.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER POURING)

BODINE: Miller is responsible for raising about 5,000 cannabis plants. He says while his electric bill can be up to $3,000 a month, his water bill is pretty low because he's growing his plants under lights indoors.

ADAM MILLER: 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.

BODINE: Sheldon Tatum is a rural water district manager in Hughes County, Southeast from Oklahoma City. He says one of the eight growers that recently moved to his area used 223,000 gallons last month. Compare that to an average household of four that uses about 10,000 gallons a month. Tatum worries the surge in water demand could cause old pipes to break, raising maintenance costs that will lead to higher utility bills for everyone.

SHELDON TATUM: 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.

BODINE: For Tom Whitaker, a water district manager in Wynnewood, Okla., meeting the growers' demand for water comes down to resources.

TOM WHITAKER: Based on the numbers that I'm seeing, I will run out of water.

BODINE: Whitaker says he's pumped 40 million gallons of water from the underground aquifer this year. He expects that will double, which he says is dangerously close to the amount of water the state's resources board has allocated. That's why he's limiting growers to 10,000 gallons a month, the max for an average household in the area.

WHITAKER: Because if I start pumping - overpumping, I start robbing from my neighbor over here, and then he don't have any water. And then pretty soon, nobody has water.

BODINE: But it's not just water.

LOGAN PLEASANT: These growers are using as much power as a small city.

BODINE: That's Logan Pleasant, the operations director at Lake Region Electric Cooperative. He says more than 100 growers are tapping into his electric grid, and each one uses enough electricity to power 30 homes. If this keeps up, Pleasant says the electric co-op will have to buy new substations and even install new power lines. That could cost millions of dollars, an expense shouldered by each member of the co-op. If the marijuana boom turns into a bust, that could be a problem.

PLEASANT: Many of these locations will either close up shop or they will scale back significantly if the market wanes.

BODINE: John Hudak says that's a very real possibility. He's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies marijuana policy.

JOHN HUDAK: There are far too many growers. There are far too many dispensaries in that state for the number of patients.

BODINE: Meanwhile, local utility managers will have to make hard decisions about how to allocate limited resources to meet growing demand.

For NPR news, I'm Seth Bodine in Oklahoma City.

CHANG: Seth Bodine's story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a Midwest reporting collaborative focusing on food and agriculture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGEL OLSEN SONG, "ALL MIRRORS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.