Activists (Again) Seek to Deny California Farmers from Access to Treated, Safe Water

At a time when water scarcity is a major concern to all Californians, a long-established partnership in Kern County continues to provide vital relief to farmers. Local energy companies are leaders in treating suitable oilfield-produced water which the Cawelo Water District then blends with other water sources for prolonged and beneficial use in the agriculture industry. Indeed, this program, which has been successfully utilizing produced water in accordance with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board’s high standards for water quality for more than 20 years, has been a model of productive partnership between the oil and agriculture industries, providing 10 billion gallons of water annually that would otherwise not be available.

Safety of irrigation program well-established

Furthermore, regulators require ongoing testing and monitoring to help ensure the safety of this valuable, and by now venerable, program. And, preliminary results of a recent  study provide further evidence that produced water is a high-quality water supply:

“The third-party environmental toxicologist found that detected organic compounds were well within safe drinking water standards and Cawelo’s produced water is safe for agricultural use. Initial water quality laboratory analysis reported the levels of acetone in Cawelo’s produced water were 280 times below the maximum concentration considered safe for drinking water; and the level of petroleum hydrocarbons in Cawelo’s produced water were 750 times below the maximum concentration considered safe for drinking water. What’s more, the third-party environmental toxicologist conducted preliminary crop testing and found that crops irrigated with Cawelo’s produced water had the same chemical composition as crops irrigated with other water supplies. [Emphasis added]

More scientific data supporting safety is good news, because we all rely on California’s agriculture industry for food and fiber, so attacks on the beneficial reuse of produced water are especially troubling during our current drought. Indeed, the agriculture industry has never needed water more.

Activists prefer fear-mongering over drought mitigation

None of this has stopped anti-industry activists from attempting to cast doubt on the safety of this well-established program, using fact-free scare-mongering claims and even – in the case of actor and anti-fracking activist Mark Ruffalo’s activist group “Water Defense” – a fake “scientist” that EID first exposed. Never mind that water produced in the process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is not used in the irrigation program.

Instead of celebrating the Cawelo partnership as a win-win for Californians and all Americans who rely on our fertile Central Valley, environmental extremists (many, like Ruffalo, don’t even live in California) have doubled-down and have placed the oil-agriculture partnership in their cross-hairs.

The most recent example of this occurred last week when Californians Against Fracking, a “coalition” of some of the most extreme national anti-industry organizations in the country, staged a rally outside of the capitol to urge Governor Brown and the California Water Resources Control Board to put an end to this decades-old, entirely beneficial, program.

As usual, the activists came armed with passion but without facts or science.

EcoWatch claimed that “…there hasn’t been a comprehensive, independent study to determine if the wastewater is safe for crop irrigation” and Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), who should know better given the historic importance of, and extensive regulation of, oil production in and around his district, said at the event, “Californians want to know what is in the water and the soil that is used to grow their food. This should not be a problem, especially if there is nothing to hide.”

The problem with these statements, besides representing rather tired run-of-the-mill scare tactics, is that they are both false. There has been third-party testing that shows the precise levels of chemicals in the recycled water. While the Cawelo water district and agricultural communities have provided extensive data that demonstrate the safety of the water used on crops, activists continue to denounce the use ambiguous language like “possible negative impacts” and using adjectives to mislead Kern County residents. For instance, a fact sheet prepared by the Center for Biological Diversity for the Protect California Food Coalition states,

“Samples of oil wastewater have been shown to contain dangerous levels of substances including oil, acetone, and benzene. According to the EPA, benzene is a known human carcinogen.”

Yes, benzene is a known human carginogen at certain concentrations. But, the most recent test results show no benzene in the water. This is a typical activist non-sequiter. Farmers are not irrigating crops with untreated wastewater; that would be unethical and also illegal. The produced water that is used by farmers is treated and tested in order to ensure its safety. As stated in the Water District summary of the study:

“Initial water quality laboratory analysis reported the levels of acetone in Cawelo’s produced water were 280 times below the maximum concentration considered safe for drinking water; and the level of petroleum hydrocarbons in Cawelo’s produced water were 750 times below the maximum concentration considered safe for drinking water. [Emphasis added]

So, the facts once again get in the way of activist theatrics and fearmongering. Both were in evidence during last week’s rally in front of the capitol. Activists rolled-in a wheelbarrow – which supposedly is somehow symbolic of…something…which they claim was filled with 350,000 petition signatures, demanding that Governor Brown ban irrigating crops with treated and safe oilfield-produced water (they may have phrased it differently).

Numbers in doubt

We should address the wheelbarrow in the room: 350,000 signatures can’t fit into a wheelbarrow when campaigns that collect 100,000 signatures fill dozens and dozens of boxes with paper.

For example, when the anti-fracking group Environment North Carolina delivered what they claimed were “more than 50,000” petitions signed by opponents of fracking to the Governor’s office, the office was left with a huge and unwelcome mess to clean up. The News Observer reported:

“Today’s petition drop-off is nothing more than the 44 empty boxes that this left wing group showed up with – a stunt trying to deceive the media and public,” Ellis wrote. “Unlike this extreme political group, the governor’s office cares about the environment, and we will devote our time to cleaning up and recycling the mess of empty political props that were left behind.”

And on Monday, Colorado activists delivered petitions for two anti-fracking measures to the Secretary of State’s office which CBS Denver reports, “…arrived in half-empty boxes.” Lynn Bartels, the spokeswoman for the Secretary of State, said:

“It is unusual because other measures that were turned in, the petitions were scanned in by our staff and put back in their original boxes to be sent down to Pueblo to the state agency to be checked and they maybe had five boxes left over. This was boxes and boxes and boxes. That may not mean anything but it may mean something.”

Only time will tell whether California activists’ 350,000 signatures (.02 percent of California’s registered voters) are the real deal or just a different type of half-empty box. But if I were Governor Brown, I’d thank the environmentalists for the show and keep listening scientists who understand, and who have monitored, the Cawelo water treatment program for decades.


Anti-industry activists will always look for opportunities to attack California’s highly regulated and economically essential oil industry, even at the expense of  environment stewardship or demonstrable facts. This has been true in the crusade against fracking and it is true of the Cawelo Water District’s agriculture and energy industry partnership.

If you would like more information, EID has written about the Cawelo Water District program, and its misguided critics here, here and here. We have also provided a two-part in-depth look at the issues surrounding water and energy development in California here and here.


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