And year by year, it takes more freshwater to extract the oil that remains. At the peak of California production in 1985, Kern County producers needed roughly four-and-a-half barrels of water to produce a single barrel of oil. Today, that ratio has jumped to almost eight barrels of water per barrel of oil.
This use has been sanctioned despite the three-year drought that has ravaged the valley, causing reductions in the water delivered by the State and Central Valley projects' canals. Not only are farmers generally short of water, dozens of small poor agricultural hamlets -- including Alpaugh, Seville, East Orosi and Kettleman City -- have been forced to tap groundwater. And that groundwater is often contaminated with agricultural pollutants, including arsenic and nitrates.
Even as the local oil industry uses a lot of irrigation water, it generates an even larger outflow of contaminated "produced water" -- the stuff that poisoned Fred Starrh's crops. This includes some water that returns to the surface after it's been injected into the ground, but much of the outflow is simply a consequence of producing oil from an aging oilfield. Groundwater migrates into the pore spaces of oil-bearing formations as the oil is sucked away, and over time, the companies must pump up more and more water to get the remaining oil.
Much of the "produced water" in the west-side oilfields of Kern County contains naturally occurring heavy metals and other inorganic compounds associated with the oil. Until the 1980s and 1990s, the area's "produced water" was managed very loosely. Jan Gillespie, a geology professor at California State University-Bakersfield, recalls that when she worked for a local oil company in the late '80s, the produced water was merely shunted into ephemeral creeks. Any oily fluid that wasn't absorbed into the creek beds would eventually arrive at a pond. "Every so often, a big tar mat would build up on the bottom (of a pond) and the water wouldn't seep in anymore. So someone would toss a stick of dynamite and blow up the mat, and things would start to percolate again."
Oil companies insist that produced water is mostly harmless -- and federal law appears to agree. In 1988, during the Reagan administration, the Environmental Protection Agency classified crude oil and produced water as "special wastes" rather than "hazardous substances," exempting them from the stringent requirements of the main law for tracking toxic substances, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Several EPA whistleblowers later came forward, pointing out that crude oil and its produced waters are often laden with individual substances considered "hazardous" under the federal law. "This was the first time in the history of environmental regulation of hazardous wastes that the EPA has exempted a powerful industry for solely political reasons, despite a scientific determination of the hazardousness of the wastes," Hugh Kaufman, a former EPA ombudsman, told the Associated Press in 1988.
Kern County's fields now cough up roughly nine barrels of produced water for every barrel of tarry oil. Year by year, the ratio becomes more skewed toward produced water. In 2007, Kern County oilfields generated 1.3 billion barrels of produced water for 166 million barrels of oil. In 2008, the produced water increased by 100 million barrels, while oil production fell by 3 million barrels.
Produced water is usually disposed of by being piped to surface evaporation ponds or to injection wells. The California Regional Water Quality Control Board oversees all discharges to the surface, including evaporation ponds. Produced water injected into disposal wells is monitored jointly by the EPA and the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. These layers of oversight also have a spotty record.
Some of the tainted water is cleaned and sent to the cogeneration plants, where it is converted to steam. The "purest" of the water is only lightly treated and may be applied directly to crops. One place this happens is at Chevron's Kern River oilfield near Bakersfield, which the company often cites as evidence of the compatibility of oil production and agriculture. The produced water at Kern River is said to be quite "fresh" -- reportedly the result of infiltration of runoff from the Sierra mountain range -- with low concentrations of hydrocarbons, boron, salt and heavy metals. Since 1994, the company has lightly treated the water and sold it to farmers, garnering much attention in the engineering world and an award from the California Water Resources Control Board.
On the other hand, at Chevron's Lost Hills oilfield, 30 miles northwest of Kern River, the company pumped millions of barrels of produced water laced with heavy doses of boron into unlined evaporation pits each year. The pits were adjacent to croplands and, according to Chevron records, 3,500 feet from the California Aqueduct. That practice ceased in 2008, under pressure from the regional water board.
Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, says that oil companies recycle a significant portion of their wastewater, and adds that it's in their financial interest to do so. Chevron spokesman Jim Waldron says the company recycles up to 90 percent, although Chevron refuses to explain how it achieves that rate. Hull says companies tend to consider the details "proprietary -- oil companies are competing with one another. It's not in their best interest to disclose their methods."