What's In The Water? Some Kern County Farmers Are Irrigating With Oil Wastewater

May 5, 2015

In Kern County the oil industry and the world of farming are working hand in hand, but not everyone is happy about that. As Valley Public Radio’s Ezra David Romero reports there are growing concerns over the use of oil field wastewater used to irrigate prime farmland.

Oilfield wastewater is cleaned in open vats like this one in Kern County.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Tom Frantz has concerns over the use of excess water pumped out of the earth alongside oil in Kern County where ag land is slowly merging with the petroleum industry.

“Where I’m taking you now is where the wastewater is actually traveling in a canal to the Cawelo Water District,” Frantz says. “This is the Poso Creek oil field straight ahead of us and here you see the oil wells.”

Frantz is a tall wiry almond farmer and environmentalist from Shafter. He took me on a tour of Kern County and we ended up somewhere really smelly.  

ROMERO: “Describe this scene to me.”

FRANTZ: “We’re in a little bit of hell right here. And there’s this big pond that’s just stinking and steaming with oil field wastewater. You can see big booms across this lake to collect oil that’s still floating on the surface.”

The water then drains into a cement canal, is mixed with cleaner water and is sold to farmers. This water is typically cleaned up in compliance with wastewater discharge rules.  Still this water can contain chemicals like benzene, is usually salty and has traces of oil left in it. Tom Frantz doesn’t use this water on his farm, but is concerned it may slowly contaminate the whole region.

"It's a big unknown. Not only in this pond can some of those chemicals get down into our groundwater and move to the west. It can also be applied to the soil where these farmers are growing crops like table grapes and mandarins oranges."
Tom Frantz is an almond farmer in Shafter, Calif. He wants to make sure wastewater from the oil industry doesn't contaminate groundwater.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

In May the Central Valley Water Quality Control Board told oil producers that they now have to comply with more stringent rules and testing for chemicals found in wastewater. Producers have until June 15 to report their findings.

“We want to make sure that we have comprehensive data about what’s in this wastewater and make sure this water is appropriate for that use,” says Clay Rodgers with the board.

"You take that water from that zone that was unusable and you make that usable. That's a pro to every farmer in a good year or in a bad year because you're protecting that aquifer."

Rodgers and others like CSU Bakersfield geology professor Dirk Baron says using wastewater is okay as long as the rules are followed.

“Certainly nobody wants to eat food that has contaminants in it, so I think it’s a valid concern. So we have to make sure the water is treated right so there is no adverse effects either on the groundwater or the crops that are being produced.”

But in this time of drought wastewater is an answer to prayer to many farmers. Chad Hathaway runs Hathway LLC in Bakersfield. He’s a local oil producer who sells the water at a fraction of what it would cost on the open market to farmers.

“My company for example we sell about four or five acre feet a day to farmers for 60 percent of what they would pay the district. So it’s about a 40 percent of what we pay the district. So it’s about a 40 percent discount.”

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

If not sold to farmers this water would otherwise have to be injected back into the well it came from. Hathaway says 95 percent of the fluid he pulls out of the ground is water. If that water’s sold it pays oil producers and helps farmers since water is so expensive.

"I just want to know what chemicals are in that water and if by applying those chemicals up here are they going to move down to my field eventually. Maybe in two generations I don't know."

“You take that water from that zone that was unusable and you make that useable. That’s a pro to every farmer in a good year or in a bad year because you’re protecting that aquifer.”

But even still people like Tom Frantz are worried that this water could jeopardize the future of farming in the region.

“I just want to know what chemicals are in that water and if by applying those chemicals up here are they going to move down to my field eventually. Maybe in two generations I don’t know.”

While the current discussion is limited to wastewater some critics hope officials will take the next step to test the crops which use it.