Drought-Plagued California Farmers Turn to Wastewater for Crops

The old saying “desperate times call for desperate measures” has never been more fitting than it is for California farmers.

Faced with ongoing drought conditions and high water prices, these farmers have turned to a water source that is both questionable and alarming.

As a result, your food is now growing with the help of oil production wastewater.

After three years of drought, the cost of purchasing fresh water in California’s Central Valley can be as much as 10 times the normal price. To fight the cost of water, farmers have turned to an alternative source of water — recycled wastewater from oil production.

The difference in cost can be staggering. Farmers pay around 33 dollars per acre-foot for recycled wastewater compared to 1,500 dollars per acre-foot for freshwater.

In this area of California, agriculture and oil industries are basically side-by-side. You can look and see farming taking place right next to fields filled with oil wells.

In total, 45 percent of the state’s farming business and 85 percent of its oil production takes place in Kern County.

High temperatures, drought conditions

The temperatures in this region can get quite high, often upwards of 104°F. Therefore, it is not surprising that water ends up in short supply.

In the past, farmers could pump water from rivers to irrigate their crops. That is no longer an option because the water levels have become dangerously low.

The impact of the drought doesn’t stop there. Over 1,000 wells in the area have dried up as the water table is no longer meeting the needs.

To make up the difference, 500,000 barrels of recycled wastewater are sold each day.

When crude oil comes up out of the ground it is combined with water. It must be separated and this is how the wastewater comes about.

“It’s hard for the oil industry to get rid of, so it’s a win-win for the oil companies,” said Abby Auffant, spokeswoman for oil giant Chevron when talking about selling wastewater to farmers.

The Cawelo Water District, a cooperative financed by local farmers, obtains 50 percent of its water supplies from the Chevron oil company.

Presently, the Kern River operation of Chevron provides the Cawelo Water District with up to 500,000 barrels of recycled wastewater each day.

Making use of the recycled wastewater

The water is filtered and collected before being combined with water from other oil plants nearby. The water is then mixed with a supply of fresh water before it is given to local farmers.

“We’re in compliance with all the testing requirements,” said Auffant when referring to the third party testing that is done on the water. “There’s a petrochemical content in our… permit and we have always met and been under it.”

Not everyone agrees, and some environmental campaigners are outspoken with their concerns.

“It’s an experiment that the state of California and the oil industry performs without consumer consent,” said Madeline Stano of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.

“In Chevron’s own report we found benzine and acetone, which are carcinogens,” referring to water that was sold to local farmers.

Scott Smith who is involved with the Water Defense lobby group that was started by actor Mark Ruffalo, called the testing methods “outdated.”

“Chevron should be interested in partnering with more than just their complicit customer (Cawelo Water District) to protect health, community, environment and water resources,” said Smith.

No matter what reassurances the oil companies give, it’s hard to feel secure about eating food that was grown with recycled wastewater. There has never been a better time to grow your own food.

If you don’t have a garden already, think about getting one started — even small spaces can produce a lot of food.